Let’s get things straight: an empathetic person isn’t weak. An empathetic person is strong.
Weak people have been all over the Internet and television the past 36 hours. One lost her job by saying it was all right for terrorist Stephen Paddock to gun down hundreds of people in Las Vegas because in her opinion, they were supporters of Donald Trump.
Still others are busy gathering social media “likes” and retweets or shares by repeating whatever sentiment is popular among their group of equally weak-minded individuals.
I just returned from school this morning in which the students’ lesson was about describing complex emotions using concrete, physical words and examples. We watched Brene Brown’s video about empathy, and her TED Talk on empathy.
Brene ends her TED talk by describing how we stop living when we stop confronting painful emotions like fear, vulnerability and shame and try to bury them with addictions like drugs, booze, and food. We can’t just shut the negative emotions off, Brene says. She explains that the process means that we shut the good ones off too.
“I was in that shooting Sunday night,” one of my beloved students said. She stood after the end of the video. “It wasn’t all horrible like you see on the news. It was beautiful too. There was a lot of beauty. I want people to know that.”
She and her boyfriend were in the first eight rows at the very end of the concert watching Jason Aldean when the shots rang out. First, a bullet went through a young woman’s shoulderblade and exited her chest. Another bullet struck a young woman in the back of the head. My student and her boyfriend were splattered with blood and brains.
They started running. He shielded her with his body.
She says they took shelter in a trailer for a long time.
The shooting went on a lot longer than was featured on the news.
People were helping each other, she said, and praying together. They were caring for each other in the middle of unbelievable horror and terror.
This, she said, is what’s not on the news. This is what she wants people to remember.
Then, one of my other students stood and said his school friend, a fellow Marine, was there with his mother. He wasn’t one of the lucky ones: he had been shot and killed. He had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan and made it through safe, only to be gunned down by the killer on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay tower.
My question is simple.
I’m a sci-fi writer. I’ve dealt with unempathetic people my entire life. I now know I cannot trust any of them in any manner. I know the best result I can expect from interacting with them is unreliability. At worst, they are that man on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay, spraying bullets into a crowd of people just sharing a love of music and having a good time.
You can look through my articles on @Medium and see comment after comment from the unempathetic: the woman who lambasts me for writing emotionally about being a failed Bernie Sanders volunteer before stating she’ll proudly drink champagne when Hillary Clinton becomes president; the best-selling author who believes murder and mayhem is the permanent human condition; the nit-picker who just wants to point out how poorly I write. The legions of defenders of Clinton thievery and excusers of McCain’s bloodthirsty cowardice.
And indeed — these individuals are good examples of the voices we’ve heard so often in the past. The violent, the cruel, the deceitful, the manipulative. The “I’ll grab mine first! Screw you!” people.
They, and this guy above, could not have done one single thing were it not for all the rest of us.
How do I feel?
I feel just like any other empath with PTSD who just saw yet another young life grievously hurt by vicious, bloodthirsty, senseless violence.
“Please get help,” was all I could say. “I know you don’t want to talk about it now but it’s better to talk about it. Your mind keeps going over it, trying to solve it, and it can’t because it doesn’t make sense.”
Long before today, I’ve done a lot of thinking about these people and this situation, because I will never know what my life would have been like if the multitudinous horrible things that happened to me had never happened. I don’t know what I may have accomplished on behalf of others if I had not been stunted, crippled, debilitated by verbal and physical violence from an early age.
My nature is to be whole-hearted, as Brene Brown describes. My life has been such, that at times, I wonder why I am not a hardened killer.
I empathize with people like Percy Julian, who toward the end of his life, wondered how many more achievements he may have made in chemistry had he not been forced to combat extreme racism in every aspect of his life and career. I empathize with Temple Grandin, cut off from contact with others by her autism, facing the twin barriers of her different perception, and her status as a female in a male-dominated industry (livestock handling and big agriculture).
I don’t think the unempathetic in our society understand their circumstances at present. It’s never happened before: no one has ever publically questioned them or their horrible decision-making and living process and not been either killed outright like every African-American civil rights leader in the U.S. and countless civil rights advocates internationally, or silenced with prison, bribes or threats.
The killing now is so insidious: toxic food, alcohol, prescription drugs, street drugs, mindless television, books written by human monsters, 6 year old girls presented as sex objects … what does it matter if our bodies exist if our souls and spirits are dead? The soul-dead unempathetic say — oh, who cares that guy shot the people in Vegas — they’re all Trump supporters! They talk about the “War on Terror” or “Russia attacking the U.S.” with no fear of violence because it’s not them who’ll pay the price. It’s someone else’s son or daughter. No empath could ever maintain war for more than 200 years of a nation’s history.
Not because we are weak: because we are strong. Strong enough to give up our pride in worldly things in favor of pride in living an honest, authentic life.
Despite our culture’s unbelievable pressure to shut off our natural human senses and feelings …
Brene Brown says, “If you feel bad, you go home, have a couple of beers and a banana muffin and tune out the hurt …”
More of us with feelings, and with a natural care for ourselves and others, are born every day.
More of us who listen, who understand, who don’t measure success by the number of billions in the offshore bank, the number of big cars we have, or boats, or expensive jewelry, or bigger houses, but who measure our success in the lives we have touched …
How we have been as parents — the most important job any of us have ever had or ever will have —
How we have been as life partners, as lovers, as friends.
As colleagues, as co-workers.
I don’t think the unempathetic understand what the empath will do when those they love are threatened.
It’s we who fight and win your horrible wars, greedy, crippled, stunted non-people. It’s we who make your businesses run. It’s we who shop in your stores, and it’s we who heal you in the hospital or teach your children or mow your lawn or bake your bread.
And we are wholehearted and we love ourselves and what we — not you — have built — we are not going to let you deceive us, or hurt us any more.
We don’t want your world of death and destruction and envy and greed and avarice and hatred and it’s time we take this world for the living and leave you and your dead souls to your ceaseless, endless worship of the evil and the dead.
If that means physically stopping you like they finally stopped that killer on the 32nd floor in Vegas — so be it.
Your choice: not ours.