Work Like a Bastard to Develop Empathy

The following entry is the third in a series. To start at the beginning, go here.

Empathy. This is a theme that runs like a river through my blog. We have become a divided nation, a divided world. We vociferously define ourselves by our political affiliations, our religions, the colors of our skin, our genders (whether cis- or trans-, male or female), our sexual orientations, geographic regions in which we live, our economic status (or lack thereof), our cultural references, and our classes. Owning your birthrights or your preferences is certainly a great step toward pride and self-love. But sadly, we've also started lashing out at groups who identify differently than we do, and that's where humanity gets into real trouble. Defining yourself by who you hate is a dangerous proposition, made even more dangerous by the anonymity of the Internet, where trolling and hate-slinging is a way of life.

When I was wearing my young/hip/edgy San-Francisco-city-chick persona throughout most of my twenties and my thirties, I thought it was what I needed to keep the freaks at bay. If I looked and acted caustic and hard, no one would fuck with me. Then, one day in my forties, I looked up and realized my worldview was really, really angry and messed up. I had zero sympathy for anyone. I'd become hard, cold, and unsympathetic; very "Every Man for Himself." And I realized I did not want to live the rest of however much time I had left being pissed off all the time or assuming that the guy sitting next to me on the bus was toting a shiv and was about to remove my teeth from my head. (Don't laugh, this really happened on the bus line I took every day when I lived in the Mission.) I was sick of assuming all homeless people somehow deserved to be homeless and that’s how I could justify stepping over them every day. I was sick of assuming all black men standing on a corner in a shitty neighborhood were either selling or buying drugs, and that's how I justified looking away from them so quickly.

In short, I was sick of defining individuals by how society has told us they should be defined.

^^ Not me ^^

The fact of the matter is…everyone has a fucking story. We can be proud of the groups we were either born into or choose to identify with, but to marginalize or somehow make invisible groups we know nothing about or have only heard stereotypes about is coming from a place of fear. We mock and scorn that which we don't understand. And that turns us into callous assholes and makes it that much easier to assume "all Blacks…" or "all Muslims…" or "all transgendered people…" or even "all gun owners…" For me, it's "all Republicans…" or "all Evangelicals…"

The way to counter this blinder-like thinking is to develop empathy. I know, that phrase is being bantered around a lot these days. You see almost as many stories about developing empathy as you do about meditation. What does it even mean…empathy? Short version: putting yourself in someone else's shoes and trying to imagine what their journey has been like up to that point. If you are a compilation of the things you've experienced, the people you've met, the stories you hold, why would you think it would be any different for a street-bound person? Or a Latina maid who just cleaned your hotel room? Or the drag queen on the corner? The Road to Right Now is paved with all of the wrongs we've suffered at the hands of others, bad choices we've made, times we've stumbled, people who have let us down. The difference between you and that person living on the street could just be a couple of devastating turns of fate for them or that you were lucky enough to have a better support system in your life.

It means recognizing that everyone doesn't come from a place of privilege or ease. For me, that meant learning to look at life through a different lens other than a middle-class, college-educated, white American. It meant that being born into those aforementioned groups had automatically given me certain advantages that other people simply didn't have access to. What it didn't mean was feeling bad about my white, middle-class privilege---I hadn't done anything wrong by being born white and middle-class in a first-world country---but it did mean recognizing that my birth into these categories automatically gave me a leg up in society as it stands today. It meant that my odds of having a more comfortable life were greater than say, a child born into a brothel in Mumbai or a black kid born in the projects in West Baltimore. To acknowledge this privilege didn't mean I was a racist dick or a Trump supporter. It didn’t mean I possessed any superior knowledge or survival skills; it simply meant I likely had greater access to the tools that help a person succeed in society. Once I recognized that, I felt like I had an obligation to appreciate other people's journeys and to recognize that their lives might have been much more fraught with obstacles than mine. I realized that judging people based on what I saw before me in a moment was a bit vapid; I had zero knowledge of how they arrived at that point.

Once I started talking to homeless folks I encountered, or the young, black men loitering outside our bar, or people who are taking hormone-replacement therapy to change their gender, or the woman wearing a hajib in my coffeeshop, it became that much harder to lump these folks into easily defined groups. How can you be dismissive of "all homeless people" when you've heard Cliff's story of losing his legs in Vietnam, losing his VA benefits, his only child dying in a car wreck---all of which left him without family and without an income? How can you say "all black kids…" when you see, firsthand, a bunch of high school kids who came from the projects, parents often addicted to drugs, sometimes homeless themselves, who are busting their asses to grab as much education as this country can offer them in order to get into college and better their family's situation? You can't. Once you start seeing people as an amalgam of their life stories up to that point, rather than "a black junkie," it becomes harder to vilify them as Other.

Listen, no one likes getting judgier than I do. I can tear a person down from head to toe in the time you can say "we are more alike than different." Riding down the street with The Wife and I is an exercise in bitchiness. "Did she really leave the house in those shoes? Aw hell nah! Ooooooh girl, you need to rethink that outfit!" Shit y'all, that's some all-American fun right there---picking folks apart for making worse choices than you. You can pry my superficial, bitchy judgments from my cold, dead brain after I go. But the difference is, I do it in the privacy of my own car or home or barstool. What I don't do is poke people---either in real life or on the Internet---for how they are living their lives or the choices they're making, and I don't tell them what choices they should be making instead.

But what I do do is seek out The Other in an effort to know more about them, to make them less scary, to hear their stories, to understand. It makes it easier to resist stereotyping and to resist assuming everyone should think, act, and believe as I do. And once I started doing that, a funny thing happened---my anger toward the world started to wane. I stopped seeing everyone on the bus as a potential drugged-out criminal or all white women in Lululemon pants as vapid yoga moms or whatever. I mean, shit, I ain't perfect; sometimes I do let my angry stereotypes get the best of me, but it happens less and less. I'm getting better at moving through the world without fear and rage, which makes me feel less craptastic all around.

So lower the walls just a bit, if you can. Strike up a conversation with someone as you're waiting for the bus or standing in the coffee line. I'd tell you to volunteer at a shelter or a mosque, but hell, I haven't even gotten off my own ass and done that, so, ya know…do as I say, not as I do. I'm a work in progress too, just like all of us. Sometimes I have the best of intentions. So start small. Build a tiny inlet into understanding that which you might fear.

And stop hating people because you think you've got them all figured out based on a few outward clues because you don't. Any more than any stranger has you all figured out based on those awful shoes you left the house in this morning.