Deep Empathy Beside The Panda Express

In 1997 I was a practicing Wiccan, bisexual, ultra-leftist, activist poet. I was openly derisive of a society I believed I was superior to, while feeling continually victimized by that same society.

I wrote poems railing against the “rich elite.” I wrote poems railing against the “uneducated rednecks.” And the only ones who were free of my ire were the people who were different, like me. But even then, no one could be as different as I was different.

One evening I went to the shopping mall in Medford, OR, with my boyfriend. It was Christmas time. We had already celebrated Solstice (a much more pure holiday in my 1997 mind) and I sneered with glee at the holiday shoppers trapped in their hypocritical consumerist hells.

At some point my boyfriend had to use the bathroom. I waited for him in the nearby food court, loitering and watchful. There was a bathroom line that stretched out from a hallway. There was a security guard posted up beside it, working and watchful.

The whole place was noisy and packed, and I looked around the food court reveling in my disgust of these people: these fat people; these white-trash people; these ignorant people.

My eyes drifted from one table to another before they lit on the security guard beside the bathroom line. Look at that person, I thought. And I did. My “different” mind tore him down: He must be some kind of failure for having this job, he must be a bully, he probably hates gays, he is probably sad …

At the acknowledgement of this emotion— this man’s sadness — something was jarred lose inside of me. The chaos in the mall was suddenly muted, like someone had thrown a thick roll of wool over the entire scene. There was nothing else in my vision but this man. He didn’t look sad as much as he looked burdened for whatever reason. And suddenly I saw him in some private room, weeping into his hands. I saw him in emotional pain and my heart broke.

There were no facts. I did not know this man’s life, but I knew he would weep. He had wept. And I was suddenly hit by the realization that none of us are immune from the pain of this world. And I understood the pain that he had experienced, or would experience, because I had felt it myself. And in that acknowledgement, a thread was tied from my heart to his.

Then I looked at the people that surrounded me. I could sense it in them too — that not one of us will be spared the pain of this world. And for every face I saw, a thread was drawn from me to them, until I began to lose my breath and felt the tears build up inside of me.

My boyfriend returned. It was time to go. I couldn’t speak really but followed him out. And once we reached the car I let it go. And I cried for them, and for myself. I cried for my hard heart and how I’d allowed myself to be isolated and angry and blind. I cried for having denied the humanity of so many people for so long. I cried for the flood of it coming back to me like a wall of tears.

Where’s Your Food Court?

That moment in a shopping mall food court in Medford, OR, has stayed with me over the last many years. It’s a memory I call on whenever I feel my empathy slipping away. And it slips away a lot.

It slips away whenever I feel deserving of something I want but can’t have. It slips away whenever I feel that I haven’t been acknowledged somehow. It slips away in selfishness. It slips away in anger. It slips away in offense. Over the past year it’s been nearly decimated. And I absolutely own that fact.

If there is anything I know to the very core of my being, it’s that we will not survive as a species if we lose our empathy towards the other. A lack of empathy allows the horror of all that is most base in us to run free. Once we reach a point where we are unable to experience empathy, at best we become passively blind to human suffering. At worst, we actively participate in it.

We are in an empathy crisis. Sure we feel it with those we love, who share our circle. But it is increasingly lost for those who oppose us.

But you see, empathy isn’t easy. Clearly it’s not. It takes practice. It takes being broken open again and again so that those threads can be re-tied. It takes knowing for a fact that none of us will be spared the pain of this world, and that very many are experiencing that pain right now. The same exact pain you have felt, or will feel in your human mind and body. And not one pain is greater than the other.

Every time I recall my epiphany, I wish to God it hadn’t happened in a mall food court. But of course it did. Because in order for it to happen, I had to be outside of my comfort zone, around people who were very much unlike me. Or at least, unlike who I believed myself to be.

Right now we all need to find that place, no matter how crappy or opulent it is. We need to sit there and look into the faces around us and feel the hearts breaking. Because that is the only way our own heart will break so the threads can be tied.

I believe this is our only hope.

This is an SOS.