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Empathy: Setting Down the Stones to Hear the Uncomfortable Stories

February 1, 2017

This is a story about judgement. About awakening and about empathy. About sisterhood and compassion. And an invitation to look into another heart and witness what is held there.

 

Straight and narrow.

 

That's the path I walked as a teen. I'm not saying that was a bad thing. I stayed out of trouble.

 

But for perspective: I was invited to one party in high school. And even then, I was told it was because they wanted to mix up the usual crowd

 

Don't feel bad. It wasn't my scene.

 

When I was around 15 years old, my closest friend became pregnant. I remember her missing some school. When she returned, she told me she miscarried. I remember the heaviness as she told me. In her face. In her heart.

 

Since I was totally equipped to handle the situation, I grabbed for low hanging fruit: 

 

"It's probably for the best."

"God has a plan."

"Everything happens for a reason."

"It wasn't meant to be."

 

Fresh. Like grocery-store-sushi-fresh. Styrofoam tray. Cling wrap. 

 

You know the stuff.

 

As teens often do, we drifted apart. Three years later I was a cabin leader at a school-sponsored camp designed to break down walls, teach empathy and build unity.

 

Here, my friend told her own uncomfortable story.

 

I'm sure by now you've filled in the blanks. Yes...an abortion. She had a bright future...her parents had higher expectations...she was fifteen for goodness' sake.............

 

At this point, I would ask that you to continue reading with an open heart.

 

I assure you I'm not about to argue pro-choice or pro-birth. I'm not interested in that debate today. I'll spare you my views on the issue.

 

(If you've started skimming from this point with the real intent of making it to the comments section to pound out a hot reply, well, you know where to find the back button on your browser.......)

 

Nope. I'm still just asking you to look into my heart. Sharing my story of how judgement ultimately gave way to empathy and compassion.

 

In that moment at camp, as I received the gift of my friend's vulnerability, I realized how it must have hurt her to lie to me those years ago. I thought about the gross things I said in my attempt to comfort her.

 

She saw in my heart clearly enough to know she couldn't trust me to not judge her.

 

Let that sink in.

 

With time, I have learned that empathy transcends what you may think is a wrong choice for another to make. What you understand. What scares you....

 

When I was pregnant with our twins, a dear friend from college was due with her first baby, a boy, the same day. The same day!  One week after my girls were born, at 39 weeks, baby Anderson's heart stopped in utero. He was stillborn the next day. Helpless, hundreds of miles away, with not one but two healthy newborns...it was the biggest, ripest heap of now what do I say? that I've ever been served. I assure you, there were some blusters! But through her heartache, through her patience, her willingness to tell her story, I learned so much from my friend about how to empathize. How to sit with another in their darkness, so that the love between you is a glowing light against the walls.

 

Empathy is simply I hear you.

 

I hear your pain. I hear your fears.

 

I'm allowing you to own your story in my presence. Your story is real.

 

Often empathy is admitting, I don't know the right thing to say. But I'll sit with you and say nothing. I'll look into your heart and I'll feel what you feel.

 

In recent months, my attention has turned to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Specifically, to the consumer protections. Specifically, protections that are critical for my ongoing (and super expensive) cancer care.

 

Protections like not allowing providers to refuse insuring an individual based on a pre-existing condition.

 

Protections like not allowing providers to cap an individual's annual or lifetime claims.

 

Saturday morning of the Women's March on Washington, I got this text from a friend: 'I will be marching for you!!!'

 

Marching for me. For my fears. For my future.

 

This was empathy.

 

I was so touched by her gesture, that I was completely blindsided by the backlash against the Women's March that began the next day. Depending on your "social network", you may have seen one or two of these, or, like me, several a day... #notmymarch posts, blog entries, and videos. All sharing a common theme...

 

'Modern women, stop being foolish. The battle was already fought and won. You can vote...work outside the home....

 

Leave well enough alone.'

 

Sisters, where is the empathy?

 

Nothing dividing party lines saddens me as much as the vitriol stones we are casting at one another as women.

 

We have been doing it as mothers for years. Working mom versus stay-at-home mom, bottle versus breast....And yet we know, deep down we know, that ultimately every mother really just wants what is best for her child. In the same way that we all want what is best for our community, our country. If the last year has done nothing else, it has caused a large number of us to wake up, sit up, and take notice of the agents of change. The roles we can each play in influencing change.

 

I get it. Protesting isn't your thing. It's loud. And the hats. And the feminists. And you don't even understand what all of these women (and men) are yelling about. And the whole thing makes you roll your eyes or gets under your skin.

 

Empathy transcends that which frightens us. It transcends that which we don't understand. Or even like.

 

Sisters, I hear you when you say God created you to be soft and gentle.

 

I hear your heart hurting for the unborn.

 

Can you look into the hearts that are hurting, too? The ones afraid of deportation? Discrimination? The black mothers trying to raise black sons without fear of violence? The ones that are hurting because you'd rather post #notmymarch from the safety of your keyboard, than look into their heart and witness their uncomfortable stories.

 

Love it or hate it, the Women's March on January 21st was historical. It was legal. It was nonviolent. And it was a coming together of diverse women (and men) with hurting hearts and stories to tell.

 

My story is just a drop in that bucket.

 

But nonetheless, my story is valid. My friend heard my fears. She knows if I lose healthcare coverage, it is All on the Line. For this reason, she said, I will be marching for you. 

 

What will it take to set down our stones and reach out to sisters who feel marginalized and say, tell me your uncomfortable story

Show me your heart, while I sit with you. Let the love between us glow against the walls of this dark room. Let the love between us light up this nation.

 

Let's allow our empathy to transcend our intolerance.

 

Is there anyone in your life who's story you can hear today?

 

**Update**

 

I wanted to go a step further and share a few of my favorite things about empathy that I find both clarifying and inspiring...

 

My hand lettering sHero, Lindsay Letters is posting her favorite quotes from the If Gathering on Instagram this weekend. This one jumped out at me! 

lindsay_letters  Love what Vivian said about being teachable. Do I want to be right? Or be teachable and empathetic?

 

 

And this. My all time favorite. Clever illustrations to accompany a talk on empathy from Brene' Brown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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