Empathy Does Not Mean Agreement, It Means Understanding

Way back when I was going through my legal ordeal, I had to take 101 assessment tests to determine if I was deemed a risk for “reoffending” because I committed a sexual offense. Everybody who ever administered a test or has been a therapist of mine knew the results before the tests happened, but it’s part of the whole system and it wasn’t like I was in a position to say no. Time after time after time, they proved what we all knew. I wasn’t pathological ill. I made a horrible mistake which was a result of my addictions to porn and alcohol.

There was only ever one red flag in these assessments and it came up again and again. It indicated that I had an abnormally low sense of empathy. I did the sympathy thing well, but I was not good at putting myself in other’s shoes and hypothetically seeing and feeling this from their position.

Part of me still disagrees with this conclusion. Back when I was deep in my addictions, I think I drank and looked at porn not just for the control that lacked in my life, but also because it numbed my emotions. I can’t tell you the number of movies or TV shows I cried at back then. Heck, specific pieces of music, especially operatic arias and piano solos, made me weep. I intentionally stayed away from news about kids and animals that would make me sad, really anything that would get me going because once I started, I couldn’t stop. I had to make sure the sad movies only came late at night. It was easier to cry myself to sleep than be crying all day if I saw the movie at 1 p.m.

In public, I had to keep the stiff upper lip and often that meant turning a blind eye to emotion. I couldn’t succumb to it. I think I had so much unresolved in my life that I managed with my addictions that if I started to think about others, it brought me to bad places because it made me think about me. Sometimes, in forcing myself to keep a stiff upper lip, I came across at heartless to others. I didn’t say horrible things very much, I just gave off the vibe that I didn’t care.

I built a wall because, much like my bipolar disorder (and maybe because of it) I had two emotional checkpoints: full-on and off. It was easier to just stay switched to the off positions. Part of me wonders if that popped up in those assessments because they happened so early into my recovery.

That said, there are many indicators that I’m a much more outwardly empathetic person these days. Nobody seems to ever call me on the carpet for being callous or saying the wrong thing anymore. I also almost never cry at movies or TV. It has to be very, very emotional. In some ways, I think people would see that as being harder now, but I think I learned to be healthy in real life, so I don’t need to have the outlet of fantasy to be emotional.

In the last year or two though, I find one other thing happening… I seem to be developing a more liberal, human-friendly attitude toward the world. This has been underscored this last two weeks watching the social unrest happening coast to coast and being absolute disgusted by the ways so many people are reacting. Whether they are government officials, run-of-the-mill racists, or looters, the trend I’m noticing is that I’m offended when there is a lack of empathy being shown.

I’ve heard if you’re not a liberal at 30 and conservative at 60 that something is wrong, but I think I may be operating in reverse. I think because of the integrity I tried to maintain as a journalist I prided myself on being very middle-of-the-road. As I said in a recent post, I’ve been able to vote in six Presidential elections and I’m 3-3 voting Democrat vs. Republican. I was always fiercely independent because there is just so much wrong with a blind loyalty to each party.

I’ve witnessed this graduation to conservatism in many of my friends who I followed on social media before I got off of it years ago. During a brief return last year, the fact they became different people than I once knew is part of what drove me away. There are now extended family members who I wouldn’t want to share the same room with because of their willingness to openly spout their rhetoric.

Now, I still greatly respect the Republican Party, the principles it was founded upon and what it is supposed to stand for, but over the last three years, its leaders have seemed to reach a place where they have co-opted that belief system for whatever it is that Donald Trump stands for…which I think is largely just whatever makes him feel powerful at the moment. There has been so many concessions to their core beliefs that I would never identify as a Republican these days. I wouldn’t want somebody to confuse me as one since they have morphed into the party of no empathy.

The rallying cry of many Republicans over the last two weeks (once they say that they are not racist and George Floyd shouldn’t have died) is that “All Lives Matter!” Well, no shit, Sherlock.

What they can’t do is put themselves into the shoes of black people (or any other minority) and understand why we are highlighting black lives right now. They do matter equal to all others, but historically, they haven’t been treated as equal, especially by law enforcement and the court system. The statistics are so overwhelmingly anti-black that it is far more than the lame “a few bad apples” excuse to the fact that in a place like Minneapolis, the police are historically going to use force against a black suspect seven times more than a white one. That is not “a few bad apples.” That’s profiling based on the color of your skin.

I sometimes wonder if these people are really meaning to say, “All lives matter, but it’s OK that they matter differently as long as mine matters most!” All lives do matter, but when some are treated differently, we have to lift them up so it’s equal. Black lives matter because currently, black lives don’t matter as much to many in law enforcement.

I can understand why early on in these kinds of events, you see property damage, fires, etc. These are caused by many people who cannot regulate their emotions and have reached a breaking point. Get many of these passionate, emotional people together and you’ve got recipe for bad things happening. But, as you’ve seen over the last two weeks, once that initial inability to process thoughts and emotions fades, the protests have become mainly peaceful. If you have empathy, you can understand how a frustrated, angry person who had been treated unfairly in a country that pretends it’s all equal, will lash out.

It was a very different group of people looting. These are not people who are empathetic to the cause and the suffering. They don’t think about how they hurt the message or how they are causing damage when they are stealing. They are opportunists who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Thankfully, I live with a wonderful woman who has always had empathy and while she doesn’t follow politics, has a very compassionate heart. We don’t talk politics. We just talk about people who are very insensitive and don’t seem to “get it.”

Her best friend from school — who she was actually the matron of honor for at her wedding about 15 years ago — has been mentioned a bit in the last few years. She married a guy who was very conservative and has adopted many of his beliefs. I really liked her when I first met her 18 years ago, but he was the kind of guy set in his ways at 25 — probably because he just mirrored his father’s beliefs without much analysis — and those people are not fun to be around, especially when they are under 70.

They’ve not seen each other often in the last 10 years, sometimes going out for drinks with other friends and my wife, who successfully went through bariatric surgery, helped her friend into that process. In the end, her friend dropped out of the process because it was too rigorous.

When my wife mentions her friend, it’s because she’s said something on social media that does not reflect the person she knew as a teenager, and it actually doesn’t reflect the person I knew the first couple years we were married before she met her husband. It reached a point this week where my wife decided she had to stop following her friend. She’s turned into someone unrecognizable and someone she doesn’t need to regularly follow.

The last straw was when her friend complained about a protest march between the two cities, that basically make one community, where we live. The march went over one of the three major bridges between the towns, and traffic was tied up for — get this — 9 minutes. Her friend was bellyaching online about this, citing that emergency personnel couldn’t get through if they wanted and that a demonstration could have been somewhere away from people who didn’t want to be bothered.

Several people pointed out to my wife’s friend that the bridge is regularly closed down for things like the Fourth of July celebration, various parades and 10K races, etc, and that she was just miffed because she didn’t support the cause. She didn’t respond after that.

This got me thinking that I don’t believe you need to support a cause to still understand it. I’m not even asking for someone to appreciate it…just objectively understand, which is the first step toward empathy. I believe we are now in a climate where if you admit that you understand someone’s opinion that is not like yours, that there’s this belief you’ll be labeled as one of those people. I think that there are conservatives, particularly those who participate in the comment section FoxNews.com who would rather be called a pedophile than a liberal. Conversely, there are people who are afraid if they say the word “pedophile” they will be labeled as such.

I don’t approach nearly as many podcasts to appear as I once did because they’re approaching me, but in the past, when I was politely rejected, I often got the feeling that they feared a discussion about pornography addiction would somehow morph into their listener’s ears into an endorsement of pornography. I get the same feeling with these “All Lives Matter” folks. If they take a few minutes to understand why people are chanting “Black Lives Matters” they fear they’ll be lumped with the group. Since when is ignorance the better option to anything?

Now, you could turn this on me and say, “Do the Black Lives Matter people understand what the All Lives Matter people are trying to say?” and I have to say, I think that answer is yes. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the All Lives Matter people are challenged by change and are for the status quo. They think that things are fine, or fine enough that we don’t need to overhaul the system.

Putting yourself in another’s shoes is just simply asking “Do I understand where they are coming from?” Understanding others does not mean agreeing with them, but it is a solid step in the right direction as a “united” country. Thank can only happen with empathy.

4 thoughts on “Empathy Does Not Mean Agreement, It Means Understanding

  1. I think sometimes people end up confusing empathy with what they would do in a particular situation. I have an online friend that does this, without realizing the person whose situation they’re considering has a completely different background.

    I’ve always had a bit of a hard time understanding why people are prepared to blindly support a party even when the party’s stance is problematic. I suspect it isn’t quite as much of an issue in Canada since we don’t have a 2-party system. I’m firmly on the left wing of the political spectrum, but I can understand why people have fiscally conservative views. Yet it seems like that gets buried under the racism and all the other intolerant crap without people questioning it. It’s a strange world.

    1. For a long time, my Democrat friends thought I was a Republican and my Republican friends thought I was a Democrat. I kind of liked that. I thought I was a Libertarian, but the more I learned about that, the less I realized I was. These days though, I don’t want anybody confusing me with a Republican. They have traded in what they stood for to genuflect at the foot of the worst leader in modern times. I do not think history will look kindly upon them.

  2. “All lives matter, but it’s OK that they matter differently as long as mine matters most!” Thanks for highlighting this. It would be interesting if each of us honestly asked ourselves this question. It might reveal an underlying attitude we don’t really like to admit to ourselves.

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