The tale of my search for empathy started with this:
“Did you watch it yet?”
I have a friend that used to send me these nature videos of one animal or another eating its prey. And he would invariably ask me if I’d watched it yet 😛
No. I never watched them. Yes, I know animals have to eat and it’s all good, Nature 🙂 But I had no interest in watching it as if it was entertaining. For me, watching anything suffer evokes empathy. While I logically understand that predators have to eat, and I wouldn’t want them to starve, I don’t need to see it.
I had the same reaction when this friend would send me videos of police brutality. Again, I knew it existed, but found it too disturbing to watch. Unlike the Nature videos, however, I knew this was not how it should be. But what was I, a middle-aged white southern woman, to do?
Then George Floyd was murdered. And as word spread, I made myself watch the video. It awoke something in me that I think I had pushed aside for some time. I read a comment from a white female Black Lives Matter protester that said she was radicalized when she heard him call out for his mama.
Yeah. I get it. 🙁 How could this happen?! Why were the other police just standing by and allowing this? I get a bit angry and sad just talking about it.
Mothers are often described as bears or lionesses when it comes to protecting their children…and this feeling of wanting to stop cruelty (or of empathizing with prey even though that’s how the animal kingdom works 🙂 ) is an almost universal maternal trait. Men, of course, also have the capacity for empathy. But, as a woman and a mother, this will be from my perspective. My search for empathy.
Empathy is defined thus:
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.Wordbook Dictionary
So, empathetic people can relate to the suffering of others and generally have a desire to help alleviate it. Fortunately for the world, I do believe that most people have this capacity. 💗
But, sadly, there are plenty of hate-filled and racist people out there still. 🙁 I don’t understand what drives them. I don’t understand why they embrace cruelty and unfairness. I mean, I understand it , maybe. But what is it that prevents them from being able to empathize with the recipients of unfair and cruel acts?
Surely they have experienced being on the receiving end of something that was painful and/or unfair? The unfair part is what always gets stuck in my craw.
Personally, I believe that most cruel people have experienced some sort of trauma or abuse growing up. This is just based on my own experiences and musings–although I think it’s been documented to be true–at least to a certain extent.
This abuse can include being taught to see the world in such a way that “different” is a threat. A more subtle type of “abuse,” it’s really just passing along a world view that doesn’t really serve well in a globally connected society.
There’s a movie I watched not too long ago called The Best of Enemies. It’s based on a true story of civil rights activist, Ann Atwater, and a KKK leader, CJ Ellis, who reluctantly co-chaired a community summit, battling over the desegregation of schools in Durham, North Carolina during the racially-charged summer of 1971. Through this process, they eventually came to see each other as human beings rather than the hated “other.” They became lifelong friends! I found that rather inspiring. 🙂
Mr Ellis shared that his participation in the KKK bolstered his self-confidence and made him feel important in a world where he was largely unnoticed and unrecognized. It wasn’t that he truly hated black people, but it was a role he took on to “belong” somewhere. A similar thing happens in gangs.
And that may be the key factor in what leads people to being racist and hateful and lacking compassion–they are consumed with a perceived need to protect themselves and/or to fit in somewhere. Something is missing in their world or in their perspective of the world that allows bigotry and meanness to take root. (I am not an expert–just speaking from my life and limited nursing experience)
Searching for Empathy in our Institutions
Not as obvious as a violent encounter, we definitely have systemic racism and white privilege. I’m in my late 50’s…grew up in the south in the turbulent 60s and 70s. I am white. 🙂 My parents definitely had some racist tendencies–as southerners growing up in the 30s, not too surprising. They were not overtly racist, however.
As I moved into adulthood, I never thought of myself as racist. I had spent a lot of time growing up in self-reflection and wondering about Life’s big questions. Moreover, I had interacted with lots of diverse people in my years in the ER.
But, as often happens, there was a part of me that was unaware…and it took the vision of a new generation to help me see. That’d be my “woke” children 🙂
Until recently, I was not much into news or politics. I kept up with big news and “studied up” for elections to make my voting choices. As I discuss on my welcome page, I had decided that too much news wasn’t conducive to happiness! 😛
But as my children grew into young adults, I was made more aware of police brutality as an on-going problem. I was actually an “all lives matter” person (I am embarrassed to say) up until this year. That said, it was more that I didn’t really understand why the distinction, black lives matter, was needed.
When George Floyd was murdered, my understanding grew. As I mentioned, I had heard of other police killings from my children, but I did not watch and for whatever reason, I just didn’t let it sink in. Unfairness has always bothered me…and I think maybe, at some level, I just couldn’t bear to pay attention.
They say the first step in remedying a situation is to acknowledge there’s an issue…and, George Floyd’s murder got me to take my blinders off and acknowledge all the stories I had “pushed away. ” It was quite disturbing and painful, to be honest and made my search for empathy pressing. As before–when I used to get engrossed in the general news, as I mention on my home page–I found all the brutality stories a bit overwhelming.
The protests that erupted worldwide over George Floyd’s murder, on the other hand were rather inspiring. As were the prolonged protests in various cities and the moms and other “regular” people that showed up–even in the face of more police brutality against protesters! It strengthened my belief that most people are good and open-minded and NOT racist.
There’s a lot of work to be done. I’ll get to that in a bit.
Meanwhile, a Pandemic is Raging and the Search for Empathy Is Called For Once Again
If you’ve visited the blog before, you may remember that I am a retired ER nurse. I have family still in healthcare. This pandemic has been hard for us as we have had to isolate from each other at home, given the consistent exposure since March :/
As you are undoubtedly aware, one issue (of several) in the failed US response to the pandemic is non-maskers. Initially, in the early stages of the pandemic, this was more of a mild annoyance for me. As scientists were still learning, the emphasis initially wasn’t as strongly on masks–although I started wearing one in March.
But by April and May it was clear that masks were important–to protect yourself as well as to protect others. Below is a great explanation of the matter.
(*note-even Dr Fauci–who is an expert–initially did not push masks (partly to conserve PPE for medical professions, but partly because they were still learning. But it’s been 100% the best thing to do for many months 😷).
Enter the non-maskers. I’ve seen the ugly videos of encounters online, and I’ve had a few circular discussions with people myself. Some of these people are just sadly mis-informed and believe a lot of crazy conspiracies. And there are, oddly enough, some medical professionals that don’t get it. Kinda blows my mind. It’s really just common sense–look at the countries that have done well. Masks were a big part of it. This misinformation is another whole discussion. 🙄
But there’s a separate, more vocal group of people who cry “freedom” as their reason to not wear masks. These are the people I take issue with. The issue with the freedom argument is that wearing a mask is not just about protecting yourself. Wearing masks protects others from those who may have Covid-19 and not know it. Not wearing a mask may encroach on another person’s freedom to go out in relative safety.
To not be able to recognize this pretty simple fact, is another example of a lack of empathy. When your actions infringe on other people’s health–as with cigarette smoke–it’s not just your choice. Listening to stories of people infected by asymptomatic carriers…people who died or suffered a severe case of covid…it’s a selfish act to refuse to wear a mask. Argue all you want. It’s fact. 🙂
Yet Another Area for Boorishness– Politics
So you have the racial injustice/police brutality, the pandemic….and then an election year in which one candidate and his followers seem to be the same people just discussed in the first two situations 😛 Ha! Yes, Trump and MAGA–not my favorite people. The divisive vibe and message of the whole campaign has been an eye opener. Who knew so many mean-spirited people still existed!
Normally I don’t engage in a lot of politics, but this year it was as if all the issues came to a head! And I was moved to get involved in a bit of “good trouble”–nothing too drastic 😛 Just sharing a lot of posts on my FB timeline–I know Trump supporters and figured I could force them to see some non-Fox information–maybe open their eyes and minds. 🙂
I also did a lot of donations, petition signing, tweet sharing, and postcards to swing states.
It felt good to do something!
But the issue of these problematic people exacerbating the tough times remained. Doing things was good, but not enough for me.
Dealing with Callous People
As I discuss elsewhere on my blog, doing is all well and good, but being or one’s state of mind is also important. Not just in how you feel amidst turmoil, but potentially in helping to alleviate it.
Life, for me, is a spiritual journey. And the people we encounter have a lot to teach us. But, as someone who is not all that “advanced” spiritually, I still very much live in the practical world of facts and science and coping.
This is my basic premise in trying to live a spiritual life while not quite all the way there 😛
“Do what you need to do while seeking to know what you need to know.”Polly Berends (I think)
I had hopes of discussing the above issues in more detail, but lost the desire over time 😛 So, I decided to just offer my basic approach to negative people and situations. As a flawed human with good intentions and spiritual aspirations. 🙂 This may or may not appeal to you–no worries. But, if it does not, scroll to the end for some reference links with good info.
Resist Not Evil (or negative events)
This is one of my favorite Biblical quotes. Of course, it runs counter to the quite natural reaction to resist evil and fight like hell. 🙂 I have pondered this verse over the years. It doesn’t seem to fit in all situations. For example, in WWII, had a resistance to Hitler not arisen, he would not have been defeated along with his crazy ideas for the world. Thank goodness for the Allied Forces!
On a personal level, if someone is actively harming you, non-resistance does not seem like an option if you want to live. 🙂 You get the idea. Same as the world war, but on an individual level.
So how do we use the idea of non-resistance to evil as we encounter callousness or evil or negative events in our daily lives? Things like issues I raised above? Situations like in this video:
As I see it there are three basic responses to the ugliness or negative occurrences we see in the world:
Action Based on What You see
This is where most of us live most of the time, imo….myself included. It’s hard to maintain a spiritual perspective day in and day out, to “pray without ceasing” as they say (although that is my own goal). The situations above are current problem areas in American life, to be sure.
Once, while on a walk in my neighborhood, I saw a little boy tossing a kitten in the air, catching it and throwing it on the ground. I love animals, and what popped out of my mouth was “Stop that! What the fvck are you doing?!” He ran off. And I rescued the injured kitten.
I met evil with force (forceful words)…which is not all bad. It’s better than ignoring bad things happening. But maybe it wasn’t the best response. 😛
Protesting against police brutality, confronting non-maskers (or the mean little boy as in my story), donating to anti-hate organizations and sharing information on these topics–these are all valid ways to react to negative situations. Often times there is an anger behind these actions–deserved anger, to be sure, but volatile emotion nonetheless. I am not saying this is a bad thing.
I marvel at the passion and devotion I see in people out there shaking things up! It’s just not for everyone, though. And that’s good. the world needs all sorts. 🙂
If you are spiritually minded, there’s a different slant that can be added to action.
Action Based on Spiritual Principles
I think the Biblical advice to “resist not” was embodied well by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights groups in the 60’s.
Before we went on any protest, whether it was sit-ins or the freedom rides or any march, we prepared ourselves, and we were disciplined. We were committed to the way of peace – the way of non-violence – the way of love – the way of life as the way of living.John Lewis
I have always admired how peaceful civil rights protesters were even as they were demeaned and harassed. It’s a powerful method of progress, but it takes a deep faith. And, I for one, certainly understand when people get a bit rowdy when there’s injustice and the protesting of that injustice is met with….more injustice. :/
In my life example with the mean little boy, this approach might have meant simply stepping in and removing the kitten from danger…or standing between the boy and the kitten. And maybe trying to engage him in conversation to understand why he was being so mean. Quite likely there were issues at home or school that had led him to feel helpless and take his hurt out on something smaller than himself.
A lot of violence and meanness comes from brokenness. Of course not all people that have experienced abuse or hardship become abusers themselves, but it IS a cause. And one that love and kindness can often remedy.
So the main difference with this approach is that it’s slightly more passive and intentionally infused with an attempt to love one’s enemy. As you can imagine–it’s not an easy ask! I don’t fault anyone that isn’t up for it (me most days :)), and I admire those who manage to implement this approach.
Spiritual action is a bit of a misnomer. What I am talking about here would more accurately be described as “being” or an internal sort of activity. 🙂
The commonly used “thoughts and prayers” is not well-received by many–especially those that are not religious– because it feels empty and useless. The mere offering of the words, is empty and useless…unless it is actually practiced by the person doing the offering. And generally better received if more tangible help is also given. 🙂
But thoughts and prayers are powerful, imo. They are the essence of the spiritual life. Not every one ascribes to a spiritual perspective though. And so, I may lose some of you here–and that’s okay. 🙂
How can thoughts and prayers have any effect in the world around us? It’s really too much to go into for the purposes of this post. I do talk about it here and there on the blog though. Suffice it to say that there are studies that support the notion. And the basic gist of it is that we are all connected and everything is energy. So what we think and feel and “put out” into the world can result in actual change “out there.”
One cool example of the power of this, is a story found in Michael Talbot’s Holographic Universe. A woman with a malignant bladder tumor was having an ultrasound done in the presence of various doctors and some Buddhist monks, there for the purpose of healing. As the doctors watched, and the monks chanted a prayer, the tumor disappeared. I don’t recall all the details, but it was witnessed and documented….and for me, the scintillating point of such a story is the possibilities.
Okay, as an old ER nurse, I have never seen such a healing myself in my working days. However, I do have my own healing story–shared here.
How would something like this work with the mean boy and kitten story? There’s a Bible verse that sorta dovetails with non-resistance, and it is:
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”John 7:24
The way I understand this verse, is that the appearance of something doesn’t reflect the spiritual truth behind it. Remember the story of Jesus healing the withered hand? He didn’t prescribe physical therapy or exercises…he saw beyond the appearance of the damaged hand to the spiritual perfection. I’m sure this sounds crazy to many, but, to me the idea of levels of reality is really intriguing (and is talked about in many world spiritual traditions). 🙂
So back to the mean boy–well, I know that I am not at the spiritual level of truly seeing beyond the appearance. But there are a couple of simple practices that I have used that I have had varying levels of success with. 🙂 One is the Hawaiian ho‘oponopono prayer. The other is Emmet Fox’s Golden Key.
The essence of both of these is taking the focus off of the problem, and clearing your thoughts or focusing them on spiritual truth. And so, with the boy, I would implement the spiritual practice of prayer while also physically intervening. The end result is that this–for me at my level of development– is much like action based on spiritual principles. But in theory 🙂 spiritual “seeing” changes the external situation–like the monks and the woman with cancer.
Again–because I am not there yet, I don’t run around suggesting people do nothing but meditate. But I do believe that the more people learn to find peace amidst chaos and tap into their divine nature, the more external circumstances will naturally improve and necessitate less direct action.
“A change of meaning is necessary to change this world politically, economically and socially. But that change must begin with the individual; it must change for him… If meaning is a key part of reality, then, once society, the individual and relationships are seen to mean something different a fundamental change has taken place. (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying)”― David Bohm
A daily spiritual practice can change the events of your life and prepare you for moments of negativity that you do encounter. The consistency of applying a spiritual perspective and mind habits is stress reducing and life enhancing! 🙂
We are living through a tumultuous time. 2020 has been a tough year! Heck, I’ve been meaning to write this post since May, but, well, you know–Life happened. And the things to talk about grew 😛
The theme of the year, for me, however, has been about a lack of empathy, as my title indicates. It’s baffling and sometimes a bit disheartening. Callousness and ugliness have reared their ugly heads more than I ever thought they would.
Just as a physical pain can alert us to something that needs attending to in our bodies, social and upheaval on a large scale can serve to make us pay attention. In this big old world, this call will mean different things to different people. I see the responses in a multitude of people and it gives me hope.
I will leave you with this MLK Jr Quote that I find uplifting:
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”Dr Martin Luther King Jr
***Even amidst crazy times such as 2020 has given us, we can be happy, choose happiness. Check out my 30 Days to a Happier Life Mini-course!