There is a lot of outrage on the Internet and in the world at large these days. There are even squabbles going on about who has the right to empathize with people who have suffered or been wronged. For example, should a man express his outrage on behalf of assault victims who are women? How someone says what he says can make a difference, but if someone wants to try to empathize, I think that calls for empathy for him in return. Even if you did not experience someone else’s pain, that does not disqualify you from having empathy and the right to voice your compassion if it comes from a place of honest concern and care.
As a therapist/ counselor, I hear plenty of stories about people who have been wronged, hurt or damaged in life: wronged by bosses or co-workers or family members. People can be very cruel to other people. When I listen to someone else’s pain, I feel their pain too. Not the way they feel it, of course, but I feel sad or anguished along with them and I often feel deeply moved by their experience. That is empathy.
And most people have empathy. Many in Trump’s cult base might be an exception to the rule. But most human beings have the capacity to deeply care about and experience a version of the feelings that other people have experienced first-hand. It is one of the most valuable, central human traits we have. It helps us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes without having actually walked that mile. It is the reason that when we watch movies or TV shows, we feel for the characters in the show. Our imagination helps us leap inside the emotional experience of the other person and “get it.”
Like many other women, I have my own MeToo stories. I was nearly raped when I was in high school by an older man I trusted who betrayed my trust in a frightening way. I told my mother but not my father. My mother’s reaction was disbelief, which was almost as damaging as the assault itself. Throughout my life I have believed that what doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger. I refused to be destroyed by that experience and two others that were upsetting in a similar ways- one with a professor and another with a boss. When I hear from my clients about their MeToo experiences, I have great empathy for what they have gone through in part because of what I experienced in life, even though I did not have the same experience they had. But even if the pain of another person has nothing to do with MeToo experiences, I can still empathize. Most people can. They can make the translation from their own struggles and anguish to another person’s struggles and anguish.
When it comes to empathy, women do not have a corner on that market. Men have empathy too. Men can feel for others even if they did not have the experience of being the woman who was assaulted. Men have painful experiences in life as well that form the basis for empathic alliance. If we can allow other people, male or female, to express their concern and their anguish on our behalf, that is a good thing. It can be a healing experience for everyone. If my mother had empathized with me, for example, I would have healed faster than I did. I had to process her disbelief, forgive her for hurting me, and make sense of that before I could move on emotionally.
What I see happening on the Internet inside many Facebook groups where people have come together to try to move our country forward again, there are people who are angry and hurting lashing out at other people inside that group. It could be a woman lashing out at a man who is trying his best to be compassionate about MeToo issues. Sometimes it is an angry person who responds to a post he doesn’t like with uncalled for nastiness and gets into a battle of memes with another angry person who takes offense at the meanness and nastiness of the other person’s ugly comment. If you click on the Facebook pages of those people who are lashing out online, it is not evident that they have lives that would generate anger. They often have jobs. They may have happy looking families. You see them smiling in photos. You see them going fishing and going to a game with their friends and families. They look like they are having good lives. The reason for their anger is a mystery- probably even to themselves. Maybe they are fighting old internal battles with Hillary standing in for the mother they hated or the girlfriend who jilted them years ago. They are hurting. So, they lash out and hurt others. If they weren’t hurting they wouldn’t need to attack others online.
We are living in the era of Trump. One of the hallmarks of this very upsetting time we are living through is that our country is run by a man without any empathy. He encourages violence and divisiveness and is altogether lacking in compassion. He throws paper towels into the crowd of survivors after Hurricane Maria. He assaults Dr. Blasey Ford and insults her to rile up his base. As Hurricane Michael hits Florida, he has a rally to juice up his base for the midterms.
To the extent we fight among ourselves online and lash out at people who have hurt us by mistake, we are embracing a hollowing out, a loss of humanity that Trump has injected into our country like a toxin. This is exactly what Putin hoped for when he installed Trump in the presidency- Americans divided, fighting with each other.
We can work together, support each other and have compassion for each other. I want to be clear that I do not think it is possible or warranted to try to reach across the divide with people who are beyond hope. Many of those people who have joined Trump’s cult, are White Supremacists or have chosen to go to the dark side to act out their rage are beyond hope and I am not talking about those people. I am talking about people who are open to a conversation. That is the beginning, a start towards overcoming Trump and Trumpism. It is also the way to thwart Putin.
Have empathy for the people who are earnestly trying to express their feelings even if they do it awkwardly or do it in a clumsy way. At least they tried to reach out and help.
Forgive each other. Support each other. Everyone carries the pain of the hurts we all experience in our lives. No one gets through life without being hurt in some way. We can use that experience to deepen our humanity or to power our grievances.
Don’t let Trump and Putin win by dividing us.