An Empathy Experiment

Today has been declared Day of Empathy for those hoping to change laws around incarceration. The prison system disproportionately incarcerates people of color, gives them harsher sentencing, and many of the people in prison are there on mild drug charges. These people, and our society at large, would benefit much more from more therapeutic approaches.

But, “without empathy, we cannot achieve meaningful policy changes,” said Jerome Dillard, state director of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO) in this article.

Empathy is really at the crux of our country’s divide. Some of us feel like we should care about others. Some of us feel like we need to go it alone. Maybe the latter group feels angry and left behind by our country. Maybe the latter group is in a great place, financially, and has a lot to lose if they start to care about others.

Imagine: the Haves and the Have Nots, all coming together to hate. At least there’s unity in some fashion?

I don’t want to hijack the conversation about the prison system. But I also want to write about what empathy means to me.

A Facebook friend of mine and super cool Denver musician posted an amazing cluster of thoughts on her body and gender as a trans woman here. Reading this, so many sentences just hit me in the gut. It’s so well written. I can relate to some of her sentiments – in fact, her description of transitioning felt a little like my body transition when I had children. Then there’s this sentence: “He genders me right, in that condescending tone reserved for women. I’m excited and horrified.” It made me really feel the sexism like a ten ton brick.


And many parts of this piece hit me in the gut like, here is something I’ve never even thought about, and could stand to learn. In order to understand, cis folks tend to paint trans folks in simplistic terms while enjoying unquestioned complexity in their own bodies and genders.

“A friend asks me what it means to be a woman. I have no idea. What does it mean for you to be your gender?” she writes.

“Dysphoria is a subtle, grumpy, subconscious beast — like an upset stomach, or the anger you feel when you haven’t eaten…Gender dysphoria is hangry.” .

It’s really too bad that even people like me, who are super into empathy, still have to be in a certain experience to really understand it. I remember long before I had children when I was at an airport, putting all of my crap on the conveyor belt to go through security. I thoughtlessly put my stuff on the belt and a frazzled mother nearly murdered me. “Are you fucking kidding me????!!!” she screamed. She was struggling with a stroller and all this baby crap. It’s not that I cut in front of her, but I didn’t really see her behind her to help her or let her go first. She literally almost kicked my ass. There was a lot of cursing in front of her kids.

At the time, I was really shocked anyone would behave that way. I mean, I didn’t even cut in front of her. I just didn’t see or help her. Why was she acting that insane?

Since kids, I have felt and acted that insane a million times.

Now that I have kids, I know I would have helped her. Now that I have kids, it feels wrong to NOT help someone struggling in front of me. I see them now. I just didn’t see them before.

How can we all see?

This will fall short, but in honor of Day of Empathy, I created a form for people to anonymously write about their own experiences. How do you wish people treated you? If I get a lot of good responses, I’ll publish them later in this exact blog (so save the permalink).

I’ll start: Here’s my experience as a new mother. People laugh and joke about the sleep deprivation and the difficulty of having children, because they see it as slight pain in the name of something joyful. But what they don’t see is that our society puts women through the proverbial meat grinder when we have children, and they don’t step up to help. The sleep deprivation is literally making us crazy. It is literally torture. Women have fought for more choices in terms of their careers in society, but in terms of women being supported when they start families, we just basically throw them away. Societies we might even view as primitive take better care of their mothers and young children with extended families living together and village setups. There are people there to lend a hand, take the baby, before the mother goes crazy. Those people are gone now with the nuclear family setup. Policy-makers and politicians spout “family values” but really they don’t care, and no one is replacing it anytime soon.

Now your turn!

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