I have been thinking a lot this week about empathy.
Empathy is what you, my dear kindred spirits, have in spades. (Spades? Hell, you have mountains of it; oceans of it!) Empathy is what makes us all feel so sick right now. Empathy is what makes it so easy for us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the people who walked hundreds of miles, trying to get their kids away from an unspeakable danger, only to have them taken away to a different danger. Empathy is what makes it a no-brainer to understand the agony that these parents and children are going through.
Empathy is a powerful, visceral force.
Let’s make sure we use it for good.
Do not let yourself drown in the ocean of your own empathy.
Here is what I mean.
If you enter entirely into the experience of a mother who has lost her child, you will end up huddled on the floor rocking back and forth. And in that condition, you cannot help that actual mother.
We need to be mindful guardians of our mind and hearts. We need to keep ourselves strong and clear enough to do the work that is ours to do.
On the one hand, now is a time to pay attention. We do need to know what is happening in our world; this is not a time to check out or numb out. But do not let yourself enter so completely into vicarious heartbreak that you cannot help those whose hearts are being broken in this very moment.
I know that so many of you feel shredded and shattered and stretched to the breaking point. So honor that.
Take care of your body; walk on the earth; fill up with music and art and books and dance and good food. Let your nervous system calm down and reset itself so that you can be strong and grounded. Get a massage. Breathe. Meditate. Walk. Sleep. You don’t need to keep scrolling through Facebook; I know the images of those babies is already burned in your mind and heart. So don’t keep re-traumatizing yourself. Instead, let your empathy move you forward.
Let your empathy fuel your action.
Let it inform your words. Let it make you brave enough to speak out and speak up.
A friend texted me this week: What can I DO?
Like so many of you, she is someone who has and will continue to do “All The Things.” She votes, she donates to human rights organizations, she goes to town hall meetings. She lives in Canada, so she feels even more helpless.
Here’s my response, to her and all of you.
Use your voice. Speak up. Take a public stand, because it gives other people permission to do the same. Remember that authoritarian regimes don’t just pop up overnight; it’s a series of small assaults on human rights and dignity, each so small as to seem perhaps insignificant on their own.
Be the ones who speak up about those small things. When a local politician says something racist, say that it is not acceptable. (My Canadian friends, your elections are coming too— and from what happened in Ontario, and who the official opposition is here in Alberta, it’s clear that there are some scary forces at work here too.) Make it clear that you would never vote for someone who wants to trample on the rights of gay kids. Say publicly that while you might not want to terminate a pregnancy yourself, you want every woman to have the right to make that decision for herself. When a big business takes a hateful position, don’t shop there— and tell other people you you know not to shop there either. When the neighbor’s kid says, “That’s gay,” as an insult, kindly educate him. Talk to your kids about being helpers and standing up to bullies: give them actual language they can use.
It is not enough, in times like this, to think and say these things privately.
I know that this might seem harsh. I know that you might be thinking, Wait! I read these missives for comfort and encouragement and laughs! But this is a defining historical moment. We need you, kindred spirit. We need you right now.
The writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote,
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Together we set the tone for what we allow in our countries.
I remember being a kid and learning about what terrible things had happened in Nazi Germany, and asking, But how could they have let it happen? I remember being a little big older and learning about the unbelievable horror that white people in my own country had inflicted on Native Americans and African Americans. Again, I asked the same self-righteous and naive question: How could they have let it happen?
I’m an adult now, and there is no more “they.”
We are they.
We decide what happens next.
So use your powerful, magical, world-changing powers of empathy. You can go places I can’t go. You can empathize with people I can’t, and they can hear things from you that they can’t hear from me. So listen to them. Put yourself in their shoes. And then help them put themselves in the shoes of those who don’t have a voice. Be the voice for the voiceless.
Keep your head above water, dearheart. Take a break when you need to. Do what you need to do to stay strong and clear.
Watch your babies laugh and wriggle, watch your dog roll in the grass, breathe in the trees and flowers and sunrises, and soak up their joy too. Empathy makes you powerful receivers but it also makes you powerful broadcasters. So fill yourself up with all the joy in the world… so that you can be a powerful advocate for the heartbroken.
I believe in you.
I believe in us.