Little lessons on empathy
A month or two ago, sitting in Sunday School with my friend Cruelestmonth, I had an epiphany. The lesson was on “The C Word,” otherwise known as Correlation. A fine, young, True Blue Mormon girl was chirping about how much comfort she finds in the fact that, everywhere, around the world, Latter-day Saints are being taught the exact same lesson. Cruelestmonth and I looked at each other and, it must be said, rolled our eyes. Neither of us derived much satisfaction from the fact that Correlation basically dissolved the independence of the Relief Society.
Cruelestmonth leaned over and whispered, “Every time they say that word, a shudder rolls down my body.”
I leaned in and whispered right back, “I know. Then again, maybe that’s how most conservative members of the church feel when they hear the word feminism.” Then we both may have snickered.
Empathy. Despite all the bad press the word received during Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, and the oft-times apparent lack thereof in the bloggernacle, it’s generally thought to be a good thing. The ability to sympathize, to understand, to identify with someone else.
Christians are counseled to, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” So why is it that as natural people we are prone to love ourselves and not our neighbors? In my mind, it all comes down to empathy. We may love our manicured, perfect lawns, and think our neighbor is crazy and a little sociopathic to grow dandelions. What we may not know is that they grow dandelions because they … 1) want to recreate the Hameau de la Reine at Versailles, 2) make dandelion wine, 3) have no strength to attend to the lawn themselves, nor money to hire gardeners or 4) really are out to devalue your property. The point is, that it’s rather counterproductive to tear your hair out hating them. The more neighborly thing to do is to have a chat. Try for some understanding. See if some sort of compromise can be reached. Maybe confine the dandelions to a specific area of the backyard? Help make a greenhouse so that stray dandelion parachutes don’t infect your own lawn? Help them with the gardening? Befriend them so they no longer hate you? Try walking in their shoes a while …
Well, that’s fine and good for such a little thing like the front lawn. What about something big, like abortion? Last year, I was visiting with an old friend. We’d been good friends and roommates for a number of years, both being faithful, single, LDS women with good careers. Neither of us liked the fact of abortion, but conceded that it was an issue best combated with education, and not abolishment. I reluctantly let her leave the apartment when she got married, and she had since had a beautiful baby boy.
That afternoon, our conversation turned to women’s rights, and sidled over to abortion. I confess that I was stunned when my friend stated that her views had radically changed. After having had her son, she could no longer see how anyone could support abortion, and was becoming more convinced that a blanket ban was a good thing.
Hmmmm. I could understand the precious feelings she had for new baby. And the fact that her politics often swayed more in sync with her more conservative husband’s. But I admit that I was dismayed. Not even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported a blanket ban on abortion, recognizing that there are cases (rape, incest, health of the mother come to mind) when it may be thoughtfully considered. To my mind, I was dismayed that my friend had narrowed her view on this issue so much that it allowed for no other views. A myriad thoughts flooded my mind. What about women who are impregnated by their rapists? What about pregnancies where the health of the mother is gravely endangered by an unviable fetus? What happen if abortion is made illegal? It won’t really stop the practice for the truly desperate! What happens if a generation passes and there is no one left to safely perform the procedure? What would you want if it were yourself, your sister, your mother, your friend, or your child who needed (for whatever reason) an abortion? I wish I had talked more about it with her then, instead of letting my discomfort steer me towards other, safer topics of conversation.
Another area in which I find little empathy is the discussion on women receiving the priesthood. The pro-side deride the con-side for being mindless and shortsighted. The con-side deride the pro-side for being faithless and feminist. I admit that I fall on the pro-side. I can understand women who say that they don’t want it for themselves … too busy, enough to do already, don’t want to diminish the role of men in the church. Fair enough. But I can’t understand those who don’t want women in the church to have the priesthood, period. Even the church doesn’t support a blanket ban on priesthood for women. At some point in the future (decades, centuries, millenia, some period outside of time?), I fully expect to be a priestess. Even now, I can imagine times when women would be glad to hold the priesthood … when there are not enough worthy male priesthood holders to administer to the congregation, or when a child or husband needs an urgent blessing.
So, all in all, I think we could all be improved by the injection of a little more empathy. Myself included. I can’t count the times when an infusion of empathy has blessed my life. Being able to to talk with a friend and feel understood and loved. Having someone trust me with their confidences, and being able to catch a glimpse of their soul. Luckily, our is a gospel that promotes empathy. We believe that we will be judged by one who has a complete and sympathetic understanding of our triumphs and trials. We are commanded to mourn with those that mourn, and give comfort to those who stand in need of comfort. And really, is there any greater comfort than to have been heard and understood? If you have stories to tell about times when you’ve connected with another person and felt or received empathy, please share!