How I learned empathy

I haven’t been posting much this year because it’s been hectic for me in my personal and professional life. But, my birthday is right around the corner and I often feel like my birthday is my New Year — I reflect on the previous year and how I’ve grown or stepped backward. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how much more empathetic I am since leaving conservative Christianity.

Growing up in a conservative Christian environment doesn’t exactly bestow empathy upon you. In fact, trying to understand where someone else is coming from is actively discouraged. If someone is on the “wrong” (read: different) side, then it’s because they need Jesus, and you should probably witness to them (and only listen to them insofar as to get a general outline of their situation so as to better witness to them). If someone had a bad experience with Christianity, then clearly they are bitter and are wrong about their interpretation of their experience. If someone has a different belief on something, even if they are very smart and well-read, they’re clearly wrong because it doesn’t align with what we say God says on the matter. If they’re gay then they have daddy issues, were sexually abused, and/or are plain hedonistic, and if they tell you differently then they’re not being honest with themselves. In conservative Christianity you always know what’s best for someone else, with or without even knowing what their situation is.

I’m going to take it a step further and say that lack of empathy pervades Christianity as a whole (that’s not to say that Christian individuals or various Christian groups are necessarily lacking empathy). If you look at post-Vatican II Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism, it’s a commonly-held belief that other Christians and non-Christians can be good people and possess some level of truth, but that goodness and that truth is necessarily derived from the Christian god and the true church(es). While this is a step above conservatism and fundamentalism because it encourages more understanding and less force and coercion against the unbelievers or wrong believers, it still reeks of condescension. It’s essentially saying, “That’s nice that your experiences, thoughts, and interpretations don’t matter, but anything good in your life comes from our god.” And, this stems from the New Testament: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers: all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:17, NAB). So, built into Christianity is the idea that nothing is good in and of itself and no one can do good because of who she or he is — no, everything good comes from the Christian god, and by extension Christianity. So, it lends itself to an attitude of, “Well it’s all fine and good that this person or group does good things, but they only do good things because of us,” rather than empathy.

All of this to say, that I didn’t witness much empathy in my time as a Christian, and I was far from an empathetic person. I eventually had to confront my lack of empathy because my best friend since high school is gay, and a few other people close to me are gay or bisexual. In the face of my best friend being gay, I continued to hold that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and opposed legal recognition of same-sex relationships. On a personal level, I really didn’t care what my gay friends did — although I always refrained from “encouraging” them when they brought up sex or relationships and told them that I personally thought that “homosexual acts” were wrong. And despite being friends with these people and seeing the good that came from their relationships, I voted against the domestic partnership referendum on the ballot in my state in 2009.

However, my attitude began to change. As my best friend became more “out” about his sexual orientation, my personal and professional life took a nosedive. You know who was the one person there for me, through thick and thin, listening non-judgmentally, empathizing, and sympathizing? My best friend. My good, by-the-book, conservative Catholic friends distanced themselves from me, or passive aggressively shamed me, or, worse, pitied me. Meanwhile, my best friend stuck with me despite the fact that I thought he was “intrinsically disordered” and voted against him having (slightly less than) legal equality. I didn’t realize it then, but I was actively working against my best friend’s humanity because I was on the “right” side, meanwhile he was being the best friend a person could have. Later that year, marriage equality was on the ballot in my state. After going back and forth in my head, I voted “yes” because my best friend was a better person than I, and he deserved to have the same legal rights I have.

When I reflected on this a year later, I realized that I did not vote for marriage equality out of empathy. I didn’t — I voted for it because of my own isolated personal experience with a gay person. But, I realized that it should not have taken a personal experience to respect other people’s lives, experiences, and basic dignity. An that is how I learned empathy from a gay man.

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