(Note, and note well: empathy does not ever mean agreement. It merely means deep understanding – and with this depth of understanding, we have far greater capacity and power to create positive change.)
I am stunned. The level of hatred and anger evident in Charlottesville on August 12th is inconceivable to me. And yet, I must conceive of it because it happened.
The ripples continue to spread. Our political leaders squabble and fail to provide guidance, solidarity, or any path to healing. Journalists report vastly disparate perspectives. On Facebook, I and others are berated as complicit because “you haven’t said anything.”
It’s unbelievably hard to even think about empathy in this maelstrom of grief, outrage, fear, hatred, discord, and chaos.
Yet if we do not at least attempt to understand the emotions that drive people to do these things – we will not be able to create change.
It’s natural to condemn them for what they did. Racists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, violent, angry, destructive, hate-filled people – the injury, pain, and havoc they cause is profoundly wrong.
It seems weirdly unnatural – and almost impossibly hard – to pause and wonder … why?
Why did they do this? What has driven them to this rage and violence? Why do people like them do things like this?
But if we don’t understand – if we don’t know why – we will not prevent future violence. And we cannot heal from past violence.
Because there are more people like them out there, ready to do things like this.
Yes, what they did was wrong. But without understanding, we cannot fix the underlying problems that create these situations.
Without empathy, we cannot understand at the level necessary to find a path forward.
And then there are people like us
People like us stand against hatred and violence.
I see great beauty, such as the candlelight vigil in Charlottesville on Wednesday evening.
But I also see people struggling to understand each other even within the “people like us” community.
Any of us who are on Facebook have read the posts declaring, “If you’re not saying anything, you’re complicit!”, and seen the comments directed at specific people, accusing them of agreeing with the violence and racial hatred because they haven’t spoken out publicly – or because what they have said isn’t 100% aligned with what the commenter thinks and feels.
I don’t know what my neighbors may be thinking, feeling, or doing, never mind a casual connection on Facebook. Do you?
I don’t know what capacity – physical, emotional, or financial – any individual has to take action in any way. Do you?
I do know that different people have different strengths and preferences.
And I firmly believe that the wellbeing of the world is best served when each of us takes action in our own individual ways. For one person, that could be writing a check to support an anti-hatred cause; for someone else, it will be walking in the front lines of a protest march; for someone else, it may be comforting a distraught friend or colleague.
And for those who are already overwhelmed by what life is asking in this moment, maybe it will be lighting a candle one evening, or holding the intention to walk in peace through the demands of daily life.
We don’t know.
So let’s have empathy and, yes, compassion for ourselves and for other people like us, who condemn hatred and violence, even as we seek to understand why this is happening.
In an interview Wednesday evening, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that we must “take responsibility for what we can do, not what we can say.”
And I would point out that she asks us to take responsibility for our own actions, not for anyone else’s.