Empathy Is The Antidote To… Everything

Serious Conversation
When I get up in the morning and sit down to my computer, I typically scroll through selected news sites to see what’s happening in the world before I start my work. Per my own advice, offered in Want to Feel Better, Really Better? Step Away From the News, I’m picky about my media sources and make sure to avoid most comment threads for the sake of my sanity. But still…

It’s impossible to completely block out the tone and tenor of our cultural view of each other – of “regular” people, of celebrities, of politicians, of… anyone. And the prevailing sentiment I see all around me – in the news, in comments and tweets, in Facebook threads, in blogs and shared stories, even simple conversation – is judgment. The unrelenting flow of criticism. Of condescension. Of arrogance. Of snide, sneering, dismissive, just sort of snitty characterizations of anyone and anything beyond ourselves, our particular groups; our own little worlds. It bothers me, kind of like the trash barge bothered Andie MacDowell’s character in Sex, Lies and Videotape, and like her, I don’t see any way to solve the problem of that floating debris. Except one.


I know… such a airy fairy, la la, positive-thinking concept. Would it help if I said what the world needs now is some fucking empathy?

However you say the word, it is, as mentioned in my piece on bullies, the antidote. To everything. To resentment, hate, crime, bigotry, trolling, abuse, violence, intolerance, passive-aggressiveness…. all of it. Think about that: one THING that could solve all the problems of the universe. And yet we humans, instead, spend our time circling our fierce fleets of wagons around the identities with which we align ourselves: political parties, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, countries, states, neighborhoods, clubs; even the way we eat (have you ever seen a vegan and bacon-lover go at it on Facebook??).

bacon vs tofu

It’s absurd, really, the degree to which we create separation and the “us vs. them” mentality, but that impulse to divide and distance is at the heart of every single problem in the entire world and has been since the dawn of time. It’s only the most enlightened, the wisest, the most loving and spiritual, who’ve realized that we’re all of the same cloth; that we’re all here on this earth to do basically the same things: live, evolve, connect, contribute, and hopefully learn something of value before we pass off this mortal coil. And yet, despite that shared mission, we humans seem compelled to see our differences more than our most basic similarities. That impulse has gotten us into a lot of trouble over time, and it remains the single-most driving force behind the snarling, angry culture of today.

Now, let’s be clear: the reason I say “culture of today” (as opposed to any other time) is only because it’s the moment we’re in… and the one in which the ubiquity and reach of technology has made the minutia of every day life known to everyone worldwide, making us all aware of the dark turns of culture on a global scale. Certainly issues of empathy-lack were just as rampant when Vikings were slaying their conquests, the Brits were invading Africa, and Manifest Destiny was wiping out the Natives; we just weren’t hearing about it in minute-by-minute tweets (let’s face it: the “express” behind “pony” may have been a misnomer!). Nowadays, the sheer bombardment of seething examples drives the point home.

Empathy: The power to understand and enter into another person’s feelings. The willingness to walk in another’s shoes. The ability to imagine or experience the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another. The sense of compassion derived from the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” 

What would our world be if we actually had true empathy for each other?

Big themes include:

Race-hate and bigotry would be impossible, as we’d all understand that the color of skin, the ethnicity of one’s birth, have nothing whatsoever to do with the intrinsic value of a person.

Religious intolerance would be eradicated because we’d all be aware that while each of us has the right and freedom to believe as we choose, those personal beliefs cannot and must not be judged, imposed, or legislated upon anyone else.

Sexism and misogyny would be extinct, as men would recognize that gender has no bearing upon the worth, intellect, value or viability of another person.

Sexual violence and abuse would end because no one would find it acceptable to rape or assault another in service to compulsions for control or power.


Ageism and elder abuse would disappear, as we’d all realize that each and every one of us – if we’re lucky enough to live that long – will one day be the aged, and our ability to grasp and understand the continued desire of that community to contribute, participate and experience life would be inevitable.

Political vitriol and partisan bullying would be abolished, as each person involved would grasp why another feels as they do and, even if in disagreement, would allow true respect and decorum to govern how governing is implemented.

Gun control would be a desired conversation and goal for both the gun lover and the gun control advocate, because all parties would see the wisdom in making gun use saner and safer for everyone.

Mental health issues would get necessary attention and funding because people would be less inclined to dismiss and disparage, understanding it as an affliction that can affect anyone in any age, economic, ethnic and religious background.

Homophobia and intolerance would be banished because we’d all accept that humans come in many different varieties and each is deserving of the same rights, freedoms and respect.

But even in the smaller, more secondary arenas, true empathy would make a significant shift in cultural discourse:

Media users would acknowledge and show respect to those who’ve taken the time and done the work to learn something, compelling them to – rather than snark and troll as a matter of habit – share, discuss and maybe learn something themselves.

When it comes to the many stories of average people, fellow humans would, perhaps, express real interest and support, even commenting in respectful, intelligent, contributory ways (don’t laugh…. it can be done; see Same-sex couple never expected this response to their wedding photos).

With the endless click-bait about celebrities in our midst, the more empathetic would recognize that those who’ve gained fame via talent or circumstance are actual human beings with flaws, feelings, families, and a right to privacy, and wouldn’t assume that ugly, incessant media scrutiny is “part of the package.”

Fellow citizens would grasp that not every needy person is or considers themselves “entitled,” not every subsidized American is an “aggrieved victim,” and showing compassion both uplifts our country and improves our economy rather than burdens it.

Members of the electorate would – even if they disagree with the President – see value in doing so respectfully, understanding that the sheer weight and enormity of the job is something NO ONE outside of the office can truly comprehend.

Neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members would solve problems without vitriol and anger because they’d have the ability to see the issues from the other’s point of view.

Marriages would survive to a greater degree because the parties involved would have the wherewithal to see beyond their own needs and wants to grasp those of their partner.

And so on.

Empathy may sound like one of those idealized concepts that reads well in print but is, in fact, too high-toned and elusive to be effective against tangible, earthbound problems in our society, but it’s not. It starts with one person. It’s what we teach our kids, it’s how to turn a bully, it’s what should guide each and every one of us in every single decision we make. Simply ask yourself this question before you write a comment, take an action, speak a piece, place a vote or… do anything:

How would I feel if this was done to me? This intolerance, this judgment, this criticism, this bigotry and lack of compassion. This mischaracterization, this act of violence, this condescension, insult, denigration, separation, or annihilation. The big things; the little things, the things in between. How would I feel if any of those were done to me?

Once you know how you would feel… you know. You know exactly what to do, how to act toward another. Do that.

It really is that simple.

Listening and Loneliness photos by LDW
Bacon vs. Tofu @ Archie McPhee
Empathy cartoon found @ Inspire My Kids 

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

The Undeniably Indefensible Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

“Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. This, I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.”

Back in 1955 when Sammy Cahn wrote those lyrics, you really couldn’t…have one without the other. Or at least it was highly frowned upon. Of course, the euphemistic “love” of the song likely implied sex (“Dad was told by Mother, you can’t have one without the other“) and, Lord knows, no one in that hoary day and age was having any of that without the sanctity of marriage, right?

Those lyrics, while sweet and nostalgic, are contextually quaint in the 21st century, musical evidence that concepts and social perceptions of marriage, sex, and adult relationships have changed as society and its culture and mores evolved. What was once rigidly held as indisputable truth, common custom or even law in one era can later be determined as antiquated in another (ancient Hebrew law required a man to marry his deceased brother’s widow). When you make laws that mandate the definition of a social custom, you will always be, in essence, trying to bottle lightning, as something that evolves simply cannot be held in rigid place.


I want you to look at this portrait of a family. A beautiful group comprised of two loving adults, devoted and fully committed to each other in a monogamous relationship for many years now, and their newborn son (biological child of one, carried by the other). Because these are two women in a lesbian relationship, by virtue of law they are denied the right to marry. Instead, they are obligated to take many extra steps, which heterosexual married couples are not, to protect their shared home, finances, and retirement; they are required to have ironclad documents to mandate their responsibilities and legal relationships with each other, including legally adopting their own child.

How do you feel when you look at then? Threatened, curious, righteous, drawn-in, horrified, open-minded; welcoming? How you feel when you look at them says everything about how you feel about the very real ramifications of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act.

Similar to the ridiculously worded “Repealing The Job Killing Health Care Law Act,” a sophomoric attempt to slip enough inflammatory language into a title to hopefully trigger fear (God forbid they simply went with “Repealing The Universal Health Care Act”), the “Defense of Marriage Act” is an equally bludgeoning title meant to stir discomfort, feelings of protectiveness and, without a doubt, a dollop or two of homophobia.

wedding-day-sepiaWell …

I am a heterosexual woman married for over two decades and I’m here to tell you: my marriage does not need defending, thank you. No one else, gay or straight, has one damn thing to do with how my marriage does or does not succeed. Nor does the value of marriage, the institution of marriage, or the strength of marriage change one iota based on the marriage of any other person, gay or straight. It is, in fact, a rather silly notion.

Silly, too, that Marriage Defenders never express concern about potential erosion of the institution based on the many heterosexual shenanigans we witness on a daily basis: the innumerable dalliances of the famously married (i.e., Tiger, Jesse, John Edwards, etc.), the fast-food marriages of some (Britney’s few-day nuptials, the legendary Larry King’s war chest of wives; Kelsey, Liz, blah, blah, blah), those who treat marriage as convenient business arrangements while stashing a “friend” in every port; even every day folk who seem to feel promises of fidelity last only as long as the afterglow. Face it, while many of us have done a damn fine job of it, marriage in the hands of heteros has been beaten and battered, disregarded and taken for granted, all with little concern for societal impact. Yet the Defenders still insist that gay and lesbian couples, some of whom have been together longer than the combined years of Larry King’s entire roster, will bring about the destruction of the institution. It would be laughable if it weren’t so heartbreaking for the thousands of couples who are not allowed the same rights and considerations as the serial marry-ers, the players, the Marriage Defenders and … Larry King.

What’s behind all this fear and loathing of gay marriage? Three things:

1. Religious belief
2. Homophobia
3. Fear of change

It is understood that several religions, inclusive of Christian, Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, Sikhism, and Islam, condemn or consider homosexual acts sinful. It follows, then, that members of these religions would condemn or consider unacceptable same sex marriage. OK, that’s a reason I can wrap my mind around. I don’t agree with it, in fact, I’ll never understand how a connection to God by way of religion includes and promotes intolerance, but I can at least see, if you are a member of one of these religions, the reasoning behind your disdain for same sex marriage.


Your religious beliefs cannot and should not trump the freedoms and civil rights of others who do not subscribe to your beliefs. Believe away, that is your right, but we are a country bound by separation of church and state and laws cannot be mandated based on the religious beliefs of any one group. Impose those beliefs on people who choose to join your religion but it ends there … you cannot impose them on the country or culture at large; that is a foundational tenet upon which this country was built. And we put much stock in that, don’t we?

Which leaves homophobia and fear of change. Here’s another song:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, it’s got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” (South Pacific, Rogers & Hammerstein, 1949).

If you’ve been taught intolerance, as many have, please unlearn it. Educate yourself. Open your mind and your heart. It won’t hurt you and society at large will be better for it.

But ah, yes…fear of change; that’s a tough one for a lot of people.


The wheels of evolution and advancement often turn slowly and there is something so endemic in human nature to hold on to what is familiar, what we’ve always had, “the way it’s been.” Change requires that we step out of comfort and familiarity, really examine what we’re afraid of and ask, “Why?” Often times there is no answer. We’re just used to something and want it to stay that way. I get it. But some change – this change we’re talking about here – requires acceptance and empathy, something there’s simply not enough of these days. The ability to look at other people and consider their lives, their desires, needs, hopes and joys, and actually feel a bit of what they feel. And when you can look at a loving couple that is, perhaps, set up a tad differently than your own relationship, but still realize the hopes and dreams that run parallel, perhaps you can face this inevitable change without defensiveness but rather a sense of inclusion.

And lastly, because we can’t leave out this very weary question posed to me just the other day: if we allow the definition of marriage to include same sex couples, why not polygamists, family members, etc.?

Because most people in our society subscribe to the custom of marriage as a kinship between two people. While there are sub-cultures and sects that traffic in all manner of bizarre and unconventional co-habitations (say, Charlie Sheen and his goddesses), even Hugh Hefner is marrying only one woman! That question also supposes that there’s any demand for a legal definition of marriage that includes polygamy or family members … there isn’t. No big lobby out there fighting that fight. If that ultimately comes at some hellacious point in our evolution, we can take it up then.

Until then, there is no reason — outside of religion, fear of change or homophobia — to spurn same sex marriage. It changes nothing for heterosexual couples and families, it has no negative impact on communities or the children being raised by the gay parents; in fact, those children thrive, even excel.

Marriage does not need defending. If your marriage does, I feel for you and suspect your problems lie much deeper than whether or not gay couples can marry. I would also guess that most who feel that marriage needs defending have never really known, been close to, or witnessed the bonds of devoted, monogamous gay or lesbian couples and their families. I have. Many. My son grew up surrounded by deeply committed gay couples who remain a part of our family of friends. My son is also a heterosexual who evolved with an inclusive, compassionate heart and I believe he and his generation will do much to bring this country to a brighter, less divisive reality.

Please take one more look at this family above… it’s important to put a human face on the issue, get a sense of the very real people who are being hurt and denied by this bill. Meet my friends: Jodie, DeAnne and their sweet baby boy. Then tell me … what could these good, worthy people possibly do to your marriage that needs defending?

Photographs courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.