Reflection Script: I’m putting this at the beginning because it’s more important than the first part.
I want to start by really affirming and respecting all the blog posts that have raised skepticism and tension and anger at the idea that we should seek to open empathetically to all relationships. I agree that empathy is not appropriate in many situations, particularly in unsafe ones.
I did notice a few assumptions underlying some of these conversations, as well as in our broader societal questions on empathy. This is not meant to resolve those tensions. On the contrary. I’m curious how it will land.
I want to question the assumptions that:
- empathizing means giving up power.
- empathizing with the oppressor or people who hate us is itself an injustice.
I’ve been working through this for two years with someone who hurt me. I find that empathy is the first step towards forgiveness, and I want to work towards forgiving him. Not for his sake, but for mine. I realize that actually holding on to the hurt is hurting me far more than it’s hurting him. On the other hand, I don’t want to forgive him! First of all, because F*$k him! Secondly, because it feels wrong! Unjust! On a universe-level, I can’t let this slide. And I don’t want him with any part of his being to think what he did is OK. I don’t want him to ever do that to me or someone else ever again. And I don’t want to make myself vulnerable to being hurt again. In this sense, I feel a responsibility to hate him.
What I have (slowly, slowly) been starting to see is that how I feel towards this person does not have a sway on the justice scales of the universe. My actions do, but my feelings are not my actions. I fear, often, that they are, that letting my guard down will allow me to get hurt again. Enter anxiety. Enter depression.
Through my process of healing, I have found that I am not my emotions, and that if I can see that and know that, I am not bound to them. That I can feel my own emotions fully and find space to empathize with this person who hurt me. That I can see he was acting out of his own fear and confusion, and that this doesn’t in any way eclipse my own experience, my empathy for myself. And that this clarity is not disempowering, it’s empowering! I can let go of the anger and allow for healing, and I can work to do whatever the world needs to stop this kind of bullshit from continuing.
What allows me through this practice of healing is safety. Emotional and physical safety. Enough that I can take what on the deepest psychological level feels like a risk – to practice forgiveness, to empathize with the “enemy”. I have not always had or felt that sense of safety. It has taken me a long time to cultivate it, and I leaned heavily on my privilege of time and resources that allowed me to spend time and money on meditation retreats and therapy and exercise and spiritual practice. It is not for me to assume that others are in a similar position, or that their process is like mine. It is not for anyone to judge. Judging others does not make the world more just, and it’s certainly not empathetic.
I’m an outdoor gear nerd. If you want to talk moisture-wicking base-layers, high-friction climbing shoes, and high-loft, baffled alpine parkas, I’m your person. In particular, I have a soft-spot for the company Patagonia. And not just their clothing and gear; the whole business. I’ve read all the books that Patagonia’s founder,Yvon Choinard, has written. I actually read their weekly e-newsletters. In Grad School, I participated in the Patagonia Case Competition, submitting a team proposal to Patagonia on how they might minimize their carbon footprint.
I respect them because in addition to making excellent gear, Patagonia is a company on a mission. A stated mission. This mission: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” And they work towards it. They’re an industry leader in their efforts to lower their social and environmental footprint (for one example, check out The Footprint Chronicles, their supply chain tracker). They’re also radically transparent about their shortcomings in doing so. They have not reached carbon neutrality, and frankly they are nowhere close. But their work and their transparency is pushing the industry, the supply chain, the policy, the system.
I was on a walk with a new friend the other day, someone I don’t know that well. We were somewhere on the conversation of looming environmental disaster when he said something to the effect of, “you know I really just hate the hypocrisy of these outdoor gear companies who talk a game about environmental solutions and brand themselves as part of the movement but actually are part of the problem.”
Woof. I love Patagonia! I think their activism work is in service of closing that gap between mission and practice. I think critiques based on “hypocrisy” are lazy and undermine our greater efforts. My own professional work and personal theories of practice in many ways mirror Patagonia’s path. What’s up with this new friend who disagrees with me?
So here’s my set-up, as the prompt requests, of “why people who oppose an issue you support are correct to do so.”
It’s important to me to keep this individual. Guessing at the emotions and rationales of a group of “people” isn’t empathy. Empathy requires personal connection, and, as Brené Brown so brilliantly defines it.
In that vein, I’m also not going to guess at what this friend meant. I’m going to call him and ask. And then really listen, which means I must be open, which means I must have some willingness to change, which means I must be vulnerable.
Alas, the friend hasn’t called me back yet. Luckily, we have a Reflection Script! I hope to reach him in the next couple days, and I will report back.
RS. See top.