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Is this the year empathy ends?

America

I remember the moment in 2002 when I was first labeled an empath. Except the woman didn’t use that word. She said something else.

“You’re a classic people pleaser,” she said, somewhat jabbingly. Was she smiling or sneering? She was a sharp woman – in brain and tongue – and typically spoke her mind. I couldn’t exactly tell if it was an insult or a compliment. I mulled the words over and over in my brain, like you might worry a flat stone between your fingers before skipping it across a lake.

I wanted it to be a compliment. But it wasn’t. I wanted to deny the allegation. But it was technically true. I liked it when people around me were happy. I was willing to do most anything in my power to help them be that way.

15 years later, my empathy has only gotten worse. Age brings clarity of vision about the nonsense the world throws at us. Some of my personal trials – several of which are directly attributable to empathy-based decision making – have stressed the limits of my heart and well being. But I persist with the empathy, because to me it seems the only way to live a grounded, moral, religion-free life.

It’s behavior traceable to my grandmother on my dad’s side, who as my father puts it, “was a saint.” Fifty years ago, Grandma E would have been described as “virtuous,” a word we don’t use much in America anymore.

A nurse, mother to four boys, Sunday School teacher, endurer of medical challenges, political volunteer, charity donor, patient wife to a difficult man .. the list goes on. She had friends everywhere. Everyone loved her because she truly cared. If you met her she wanted to know who you were, where you came from and where you were going.

She didn’t do any of this consciously – it was just how she lived. Self was the last thing on the list when it came to her priorities. In fact, her health suffered as a result. I imagine her alive today, hearing the phrase “self care” and laughing about it. First she had to take care of everyone else. Self care could wait.

My empathy takes a different tact. I am concerned with the daily interaction of human beings and the well-being of my family, friends, colleagues and community members. Small details matter to me. I am the person picking up other people’s dog poop at the dog park and broken beer bottles on the sidewalk. I am the enforcer of “thank you” and ” have a nice day” at the parking kiosk or the grocery aisle. I take my friends’ dogs when they can’t walk them and bake pies for people who don’t know how.

Yes, I do some of this because I have time on my hands and can’t spend all of it working. But mostly I do it because I think society crumbles if we aren’t kind and big-hearted and giving of the resources at our disposal.  And now, finally, I am getting to my point.

A recently article by Om Malik in the New Yorker declared that “Silicon Valley has an empathy vacuum,” and described the impact of the Internet’s algorithms and technology’s fast-forward pace innovation on our culture.  I would expand the scope of Malik’s thesis to a broader and perhaps more frightening one. It is my belief that our current president, the stress of his surprising and unexpected election, and the pressure of a social media-fueled society is turning into a backlash on empathy at large.

President Obama called out the fallback of empathy as an American value set repeatedly. A couple of notable comments he made on the subject:

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

“We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.”

Search for “Donald Trump quotes about empathy” and you get something else entirely – a selection of articles about the rare instances when the current President appeared to be concerned about something other than his own victories or ego. “Beautiful little babies” in Syria, for example.

A Forbes piece from last year asserts that Trump is in fact a master of empathy, but in a manipulative way. “His instinctive understanding of his fans’ emotional states and his willingness to exploit them drive his success,” wrote Emily Willingham. Empathy becomes a weapon, and not for good. Perhaps it should be distrusted, if it is merely a con to twist emotions in a certain direction.

Which brings me to the headline that prompted this blog in the first place. From the Washington Post: How Trump’s budget helps the rich at the expense of the poor.

USA Today: Trump budget cuts safety net programs, hitting states that voted for him

Post again: Trump’s plans to cut food stamps could hit his supporters hardest

While the one percent may include the majority of Trump’s friends and fellow global businesspeople, he was elected by poor Americans. Their priority for his campaign? Jobs. Jobs and a return to prosperity for struggling small cities and towns that have been left behind by the tech economy. Towns where Medicaid and anti-poverty initiatives are essential to survival.

They took a chance on Trump because perhaps he could bring his business acumen to their micro-economic struggles. Instead, they will be more likely to die early and hungry. That is the ultimate lack of empathy. Somewhere in heaven, my aforementioned grandmother, a lifelong Republican volunteer, donor, and campaign-runner, is horrified.

I won’t quit empathy easily, especially under these circumstances. My grandmother’s legacy deserves more than that. If you need me, check the beach. There’s an awful lot of trash to pick up.

trash

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A letter to my niece

Hi RLE,

You are one week old today, and Donald Trump has been President for 12 days so far.

I am so glad you are too little to understand what this means. But to be honest, even those of us who claim to be “grown up” are still figuring that out. It has been 12 long days of surprising twists, turns and turmoil on a national stage.

Let’s just say that so far it has been a pretty dark time to be a conscientious American who favors equal rights and liberal social policies. I have shed a lot of tears on behalf of many friends who are affected by sudden changes to immigration, health care and environmental law. And I’ve been sleepless at night worried about where we are going to end up in the weeks, months and years ahead.

You are going to grow up in California, which is essentially a different country from the America that decided our current President was a wise choice.  For the most part, people here are reasonable and fair. They don’t judge others based on their gender, sexuality, religion or color of their skin. I am sad to say that in the year 2017, that is not a universal standard in the United States of America. Some of us (including me) were deluded into thinking it was until quite recently. Turns out we were very wrong.

Our current president does not believe that you or I deserve to be paid equally to a man doing the same type of job. He does not believe that we deserve access to affordable health care. He does not believe we are entitled to make decisions about our own bodies and their reproductive capabilities. He does not believe that global warming is happening. And he believes that America should close its borders to immigrants, severing the 400-year-old umbilical cord that made this country what it is today.

On January 21, I went out and marched down the street in Santa Barbara with several thousand others, because I don’t think any of this is OK. So did more than a million other women and men around the country. We walked and we shouted and we sang and we cried, because it is our right as voting Americans to do so. Your dad and mom and older brother were out there marching too. It felt like one of very few constructive things we could do to stand up for an open, free, authentic America that upholds the Constitution and welcomes everyone.

I’ll write you more letters in the coming months, because I want to keep a record of this odd national journey we find ourselves on these days. Please know that your family is out being outspoken on your behalf. We want you to have Title IX intact so you have opportunities to play sports, Roe v. Wade standing so you can make your own decisions about your body, and when it’s time to go to work, you should be paid just as much as the guy in the office next to you. Even if the President doesn’t think so.

We love you,

Your aunt Leah