Today I want to discuss the forbidden topics. I want to discuss religion and politics. That’s right- both of them. I usually try to avoid them on this page, in an effort to keep things running smoothly. And overall, I have found little reason to bring my opinions on these subjects to this platform.
So, what changed my mind? Well, I can tell you it is not the desire to let you all know how I feel about controversial topics. Rather, it is a recent discussion I had on Facebook that made me think deeper about religion, politics, and empathy for others in general. These ideas have bothered me for some time, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it until now. And the resulting feelings I have seem to translate to this part of my world, too.
I want to talk about empathy, and the hardest challenge of all- to empathize with those who we do not relate to. I don’t know about you, but my Facebook feed is filled with failure when it comes to political and religious empathy. And while I usually make a successful effort at discussing my views with respect and patience; I often fail, too. I am passionate about many things, and I am sarcastic in nature. I abandon empathy on a regular basis.
But I try. I have rules for myself:
Never engage in debate until I can appreciate, truthfully, why the other party should defend their position.
Never attempt to change someone’s mind about their own viewpoint, but instead attempt to help them see my own point of view in a new way.
Listen to what the other person is actually saying, instead of arguing what I assume they are thinking.
Use empathy, and expect only empathy in return.
And, most importantly, forgive the other party (and myself) for breaking these rules again and again.
It was with this spirit in mind that I responded to a friend on Facebook. The topic was marriage equality. To say we have a history of differing political views would be an understatement. In this example, I support marriage equality and she does not.
I doubt she has ever read my blog. If she does happen upon it, I have no intention of using this as a means to further some kind of argument. We knew each other in another time and place, and we have few mutual friends. I am sharing this as an example of typical religious and political discourse. It was a civil discussion, and we are still Facebook friends.
The discussion was civil, but it was also very disappointing. It left me with a familiar feeling (that thing I couldn’t put my finger on before). I do feel real empathy for her spiritual beliefs, and I did my best to demonstrate that empathy. But- no empathy was returned. I waited for it; but there was not a single glimpse of empathy for not only my beliefs, but especially not for the people most impacted by the issue of marriage equality. There was only empathy for herself and others like her.
She made the typical talking points that sound hateful to anyone without a Christian background. I disagree, but I am no stranger to the Christian faith. She isn’t a bad person. Her views are not coming from a place of hate at all. But I was most struck by her words, “….why should everything be changed because someone has decided they don’t like it? Everyone is so worried about offending anyone and quick to remove God, they end up offending the Christians, but no one really seems to care about that.”
She’s right. There isn’t a whole lot of empathy toward Christians. But…. didn’t she also just reduce the opposing argument for marriage equality to a simple case of “someone has decided they don’t like it” and are simply offended? It is clear that she has no idea what marriage equality would mean to those who do not have the same marriage rights that she has, and she isn’t interested in knowing. There is no compassion; no desire to address their concerns at all. It hasn’t impacted her world in a way that could create true empathy, so finding solutions to the other side of the story is not a priority for her.
And really, a sign of empathy was all I wanted. I would never expect her to change her religious convictions. I know better. But having genuine empathy doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs; it may only change the way you think about a solution. I just wanted a glimmer of evidence that she knows the desire for marriage equality is more complex than that, and has validity. That the people whose lives are most affected by a denial of the right to marry, also deserve thoughtful consideration from her before making a decision. Maybe some sense that she believes their happiness is important….at all?
I gave her that consideration. I care about her fears. Whether I agree or not, her concerns deserve my consideration. I believe this, and I expressed it. My empathy for her was the only reason the conversation continued as well as it did. The inability to reach mutual empathy is what ended it.
Empathy is not impossible, but it’s damn hard to get. I am not attacking Christians. I think we all know that lack of empathy is spread equally. I know plenty of people who would have gladly attacked my Christian friend with all types of disrespect to her religion. How effective would that have been? That is the usual way of things, and so that is also what she expected of me. I can’t blame her. We both came into this with preset notions about each other. We have a lot of walls to break down before we can get to a place of mutual consideration.
And if I am being honest, it is very difficult for me to silence my lack of empathy and my need to express the overwhelming thoughts I have in response. Let’s face it. If you know me, I am holding back now. I have to keep reminding myself that someone who is not ready to empathize is definitely not ready for a worthwhile debate. This is the mistake I make most often. I imagine I am going to keep on making that mistake for the rest of my life.
No one has ever had their voice heard in an argument without first creating an environment of empathy. You have to offer it with sincerity before you will get it in return. Even then, you probably won’t get it in return on the first fifty tries. So people are (understandably) unwilling to discipline themselves in the art of remaining empathetic.
Lack of empathy goes far beyond our disagreements with each other. Even with those who think just like us, we have to make a real effort toward empathy when it comes to our differences. We are all stuck in our bubble of familiarity.
Look at parenting. I am completely aware that those outside of the autism world struggle to have empathy for my challenges with Teghan. It’s not their world. I had small amounts of empathy for this community before I belonged to it, too. Empathy in words is easy. It’s the firsthand experience that makes us feel something. Experience makes us care enough to take some kind of action.
So we share our world with others. And, little by little, those around us begin to gain a better understanding of that world. I mean, look at all of the people who have changed their minds about gay rights just because someone in their family forced them to understand the reality better. It certainly did not happen overnight. To get there, I suspect some empathy had to come from both sides. Few things are black and white. Few people are ever completely wrong, or completely right. This means that eventually, we can find a pathway to some place of coexistence (if we are willing).
Too often we lose patience with one another in the meantime. Keep trying. It is a true challenge to seek out empathy on our own, so we have a responsibility to each other to keep empathy alive. For religion, for politics…. and for every other part of our lives.