31 July 2013: The importance of empathy to others

The importance of empathy to others

There’s a delightful woman who has been taking ticket stubs at the Denver West theaters for 17 years, she tells me.  She happens to be blind, or seeing impaired.  Another way of saying it is she has a disability.  However one states that factual aspect of her physical being, it does not detract from her ability to see the world…from her perspective. She has phenomenal vision and as a result has stories to tell.

Having dealt with an essential aspect of my life that makes me different from the vast majority of other males, I get what she is saying.  She’s different from the dominant majority that has dictated and helped shape not only how we look at stuff culturally and socially but also practically.

Some 30 years ago, a nephew studying landscape architecture helped me see something I had been blind to: The ability for handicapped persons who depend upon wheelchairs for mobility and accessibility to move about.  Today, cut-curbs are a given as are lifts on busses and reserved parking spaces in public lots.

That conversation was huge both personally and professionally, for I had just began my career as a public school teacher.  In my first year, one of my students was both visually and physically challenged.  At first I was not entirely empathetic to her plight, seeing the world only through my able-body perspective that took stairwells, waist-high countertops, and swinging doors, all of which presented barriers to my otherwise very bright and enthusiastic student, for granted.

It was then I learned the meaning of empathy: the identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives (American Heritage Dictionary). The phrase I use now is to express it is “I get it.”

Empathy can be intellectual, an intentional perspective, or arise from within without intention or practice.  For such a person, it’s as natural as a heartbeat or breath.

Our culture is based upon the essential aspect of the dominant, ruling group: white, Christian, hetero, English-speaking, ambulatory, visually and mentally abled males.  Those parameters helped create our societal rules of engagement because, once upon a time, we took all of those aspects for granted.

At the risk of digressing, I want at this time to acknowledge with gratitude the support I have gotten of late and over the years from non-gay friends and colleagues.  Not only do I value that, I also am in awe of those passionate in their empathy and compassion for those who are different and advocate for them because it’s the right, ethical, and moral thing do.  More on that, though, in a future piece.

As I wrote last week, I’m not black, but I get it when it comes to what enrages many blacks in the Trayvon Martin verdict.

I’m not a woman, but I get it when I see one more state legislature, this time Texas, go after women by concocting and putting up every roadblock imaginable to women seeking assistance when it comes to their pregnancies.

I’m not an immigrant or Latino or belong to another racial or ethnic culture, but I get it when it comes to their frustration with being treated as second-class citizens with regard to voting barriers officials intentionally construct.

I’m not transgendered but I get it when it comes to kids in school who are and with their need to access a restroom in which they feel comfortable.

Victims, those ostracized or marginalized, those somehow different from the dominant ruling class: Those have been my “causes,” if you will, for whom I advocate on this page 10 years running.

To be sure, gains are being made and inroads carved, much like curb-cuts.  However, with those gains comes a spowerful pushback from hate- and fear-filled, anxiety-ridden members of the dominant culture aided and abetted by true-believers not part of the DC but have bought into it and subscribe to its rules and worldview.

I cannot really truly know what it’s like to be a woman in American society, or to be black, Latino, disabled, etc.  But I do know what it’s like to be gay, which then helps me feel more intensely what so many others are experiencing and, in turn, give voice to them.

To be continued.

Note: This is the third in a series.  My intent is to continue in this vein, exploring related topics such as gratitude, the emotional impact of being marginalized or rejected, and rising above victimhood.  Your feedback is invaluable.

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