This post shares how I practice empathy using the police shootings of the last week as an example (specifically empathy for my friends of color and my friends vocally supporting police officers).
Last week I experienced one of my most exciting professional successes (starting my ecourse), even while I suffered profound social grief (see yesterday’s post for more on that). If anything, it drove the point home for me about my work, and I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share it with you.
As I watched my friends grieve again (I feel like this happens constantly because of social media and smartphones), I thought about the importance of love and how it can direct change. I thought about the importance of stories, the ones we create and the ones we share (think: intentional writers). I thought about the deep need for empathy and how our actions reflect ourselves.
Because of the divisive nature of last week, I’m going to take you through an exercise in empathy, something that utilizes techniques included in The Heart Unboxed course. This is something many writers do naturally – imagining the story of a person from a snapshot of their life. In short, I will show you how I place myself into the shoes of other people. I’ve been doing this a long time (both professionally and personally) and it does take practice. But with intentional practice, you can improve this ability, and many aspects of your life will benefit.
Because I am a white civilian, I will write through my perspective, showing how I understand police violence (and the situation from last week in particular) from different perspectives.
My Friends of Color
First, I imagined what it was like to be one of my friends of color right now. I imagined how watching videos and looking at pictures from Alton Sterling and Philando Castile made them feel. I imagined they felt that at any time, they could be killed for doing everyday things. How many times has someone forgotten to signal in front of me? How many times have I forgotten to signal while driving? How many times have I done a seemingly insignificant thing that could have resulted in a friend’s death?
If I was a person of color, I would fear for my son’s life all the time. I would fear that someone would disregard him as a human being, without the possibility of justice.
I imagine these things and while I haven’t experienced the extent of this fear, I know a related fear in my trauma. I used to experience (and sometimes still when I’ve been triggered) fear of public spaces where I was surrounded by men. I know what it’s like for people to think I don’t have bodily autonomy, thinking they can do whatever they want with my body because I’m not completely human. I do know this.
I can imagine what it’s like to have stories, concepts, and language pigeon-holing you because of some physical attribute – I’ve known that, though it’s different.
I’ve never experienced something quite like this collective grief my friends feel. I don’t have anything in my experience that comes close, but I do know what it’s like to feel like my safety has been stolen – to have spaces that were once safe turn into hostile environments. I do know that.
And because of all this, I understand why so many of my friends of color are fighting so hard to make structural changes. They deserve to be safe. Mothers deserve to feel like their children are safe – that someone won’t kill them for behaving like people. I understand how someone would feel that because this violence continues without repercussions, without justice, I can understand why people would feel this is a war on blackness. I can understand how people could feel hopeless, frustrated, and desperate. I can even understand, in that desperation and fear, why some might take violent action.
My Friends Supporting Police
On the other hand, I understand why many of my friends want to support the police. The police are a symbol of authority, structure, and order. They are a symbol for justice and protection for many people. They make many white middle and upper class people feel safe.
To blame this symbol for atrocities calls into question the entire accepted social order. That is upsetting. No one wants police officers to be corrupt. No one wants police officers to be more dangerous to communities than helpful. If they were, it would throw everything into chaos.
On a regular basis, police encounter dangerous situations. Sometimes they encounter exceptionally dangerous situations like Dallas. Police officers who were doing exactly what we as a society have asked them to do, were injured or killed for doing it. They were protecting civilians at a peaceful protest when they were shot.
While police have been given extensive training that highlights certain kinds of responses to dangerous situations, there are times when it doesn’t matter. There are times when there are “no-win” situations – when people die even when they do everything perfectly. When I see situations like Dallas, I have to acknowledge the very real danger police face and the important role they play in society. They are trained to work as a group and to protect the group. And they have internalized that training very well – that’s how civilians were saved during the Dallas shooting.
It’s understandable to want all their training to mean something – to work.
Many officers do good things – important things. And for my friends, when the overall system is called into question, it can feel like those good things are erased. It can feel like the good things officers do, and the risks they face, are ignored. My friends feel this to be true, and understandably, that is upsetting.
It’s also upsetting because acknowledging the nature of police violence means my friends have to acknowledge the systemic racism that still exists. This would question their identity, and rock their community’s structure. That is scary. It would mean change – stepping into the unknown and possibly losing their place in society. That is very scary on many levels, so I understand why they want to support the system. I understand why they want it to work and why they want to continue things as they have been.
When I Read Social Posts
I read my friends’ posts on both sides and I see them as reflecting their perspectives and place in society. I see it reflecting their beliefs. I see the way people shore up their identities and perceptions of themselves. I see the way people lay their hearts bare. I see how people try to get others to understand their perspectives, emphasizing points that haven’t been discussed within their group of friends.
I also see how others ignore the issue, for one reason or another – likely from fear of saying the wrong thing, or because it is too emotionally difficult to breach the subject, and frankly, life goes on.
In all cases, I send love. I send love because I want all to hear each other, to recognize the pain of one another and acknowledge the deep divisions that require action. I send love, hoping some apologize, and others forgive, knowing I cannot make either happen, that neither can be forced. I write words, because that is something I can do – something I know how to do. I make myself vulnerable, talking about that taboo topic of whiteness that many avoid discussing because it is within my power.
I don’t know how common this is. I’ve not any idea. I do know there are many (based on my compassion survey responses) who struggle to understand the perspective of others. And that’s why I included compassion to others in The Heart Unboxed course.
This week, I want you to reflect on why someone is posting the things they’re posting on social media. Imagine the perspective of the person behind the avatar. Imagine the life they’re living that led them to post certain words. You don’t need to agree with them. You don’t need to even like them. But when you understand their perspective, it’s a lot easier to respond to the post with love.
When you try this, let me know how it goes in the comments below. Better yet, open up another tab and pick your social feed of choice to do this and leave a comment right now!
If you struggle with it, consider enrolling in my course, The Heart Unboxed: How to Love the Unloveable, which is a deep dive into loving yourself and others that will transform your life through increasing your empathy and compassion.
Remember: I’m thinking of you. I’m sending you love in the form of a big psychic hug. You matter.
- Between Chaos and Order: The Need For A Middle Way - June 18, 2018
- Spiritual Mamas: Intuition, Spirituality, and Motherhood - June 4, 2018
- Neither Selfish or Selfless – Only Loving! - April 30, 2018