"You cant even call this shit a war." "Why not?" "Wars end." -On the War on Drugs from the HBO show The Wire
I started this post before Election Day in the US. I now share this post from a place of immense sadness and devastation. My country has shamefully displayed a face of hatred and bigotry. We now need training in empathy and compassion more than ever. I am Latina, I am a woman, I work with children with disabilities, and my husband suffers from addiction. I am afraid.
In my work, empathy is a cornerstone to my practice as a Speech-Language Pathologist working with children with varying disabilities. When communicating with my families, it is important for me to listen and to come from a place of understanding. I’d like to think that I have always had the capacity for empathy, and that that is what makes me a good speech therapist. However, empathy is a skill and like any skill it can be taught, learned, and practiced. So perhaps my work has also helped me to find my more empathetic self. I guess it’s a chicken or egg dilemma.
The world needs some lessons in empathy. Globally, locally, personally we are facing obstacles and divisive boundaries that are dangerous and dehumanizing. At a time when hate has taken center stage in the U.S.’s election, it is apparent to me we have work to do in order to foster empathy. We have to talk about it. We have to cultivate it. We have to fight for it. We have to demand it.
First off what is empathy? Empathy requires the following: perspective taking, letting go of judgment, recognizing emotions, and communication. Check out this video that nicely summarizes empathy.
Seeing people, including those who are addicted, through tainted and fearful lenses, seeing them as the “other”, the morally devoid criminal, leaves no space for empathy. It only brings forth action that divides and separates. It creates deep scars on the heart of the human race. My experience with addiction in my marriage has required me to make a choice. It has required me to have empathy. Knowledge and education has played an integral role in this. My experience with addiction in my marriage, and my knowledge, has allowed me to develop a greater capacity for empathy. I think empathy breeds humanity. By this, I mean that when we act with empathy we no longer see the barriers, instead we imagine that others are us. We would not jail our suffering brother, deport our hard working mother, or shoot at our son. In fact empathy breaks down the concept of you and me. It elevates the us and we. Yes, empathy breeds humanity. Empathy breeds connection. Back to the chicken and the egg thing, connection with others can also foster empathy. Despite the way we are now connected via social media, the internet, and varying communication technologies, it is easy to become insulated in our society. By insulated I do not necessarily mean alone, but I mean we are surrounded primarily by people that are “like us.” There is naturalness to community: family, culture, tradition, religion. But there is also the unnatural aspect that exists in modern society: inequity of wealth resulting in poverty, inequitable access to resources, and of course disparity in privilege. Like Nelson Mandela said:
Some of this insulation is also created by the ideas and judgments about “others” that are taught and learned. When we are insulated, it is easy to focus on the differences that separate us rather than the similarities that connect us to “others”. It is even easy to ignore the “others”. Ignorance is bliss isn’t it? If ignorance fuels apathy, then knowledge must arm empathy. When we do not acknowledge experiences, when we do not learn with an open mind, when we do not listen compassionately, when we let judgment get in the way, we do not give ourselves opportunity to find what connects us, on a human level. This human level thing is important because we may differ in skin color, religion, socio-economic background etc., but there does exist a shared human experience. A shared human experience of love, suffering, pain, sadness, disappointment, humiliation, joy. We recognize the emotions of self and connect them to those of another. Empathy breeds connection. Of course we are not all the same. We must acknowledge, educate, respect, and celebrate our differences, in a loving way and with empathy. We are all worthy of love. My husband is, I am, you are.
My research and reading about addiction has emerged from a deeply personal level in my attempts to support my husband. It is transforming into something else, something that is still personal and yet is also communal. And now my reading has led me to explore the failed War on Drugs. I have had political-social-civil opinions about it for years, before my husband’s addiction, before my marriage. But now it is personal. These waters are dark, they are deep, and they drown. There is no empathy in these waters.
The policies of the War on Drugs have shaped my life as well as the vulnerable lives of so many suffering families and communities, leading to the current atmosphere of addiction in this country. This atmosphere is a shadowy place with stigma, shame, and violence. Where does empathy live in the War on Drugs? Well, it doesn’t live there. The history of the War on Drugs is rooted in corruption. It is a war that has taken many victims, leaving us devastated in its wake. Why? Because this war has not, in fact, been a War on Drugs. It has been a War on People characterized by deeply scarring policies of indoctrination instead of education, stigma instead of openness, trauma instead of healing, criminalization instead of care, imprisonment instead of treatment, and profit instead of people. We wear these scars more openly as a nation now with the opioid epidemic reaching across race and class boundaries, but the wounds have been festering for years, devastating diaspora communities and creating deep lacerations across generations of families. We are a nation suffering from PTSD and a nation self-medicating. No, there is no empathy in war.
I wonder if we stripped away our political and economic views and opted for a human view, where would we be. Would we see that it is time to put an end to the War on Drugs? I think the human perspective demands reform in the way we treat addiction that would lead to the healing of our nation’s suffering families and communities. Of course eradication of poverty, discrimination, and world peace would be ideal, but in the meantime, we need to really dig down deep, order up a big dose of empathy and rediscover a (human) perspective that values life over the almighty dollar. We need to correct policies that profit pharmaceutical companies, the prison industrial complex, drug cartels, and police departments. We must stop jailing the traumatized and impoverished and displace the trauma and hate. I think there is hope, because empathy, just like hate and love, can be taught, and it can be learned. I know because as I said, I am learning empathy in the classroom that is my life. It is in the moments when we face adversity that we can be resilient and make the choice to learn. We can seek and gain knowledge that shapes proper perspective. This perspective can connect us empathically. And in turn that empathy breeds humanity.
One of the most powerful statements I have heard about empathy came from a man about to be executed on death row. His words resonate with me from the afterlife in ways I cannot begin to express; deep, deep down in my soul. In these tense times we live in, when charged issues of inequality, race, gender, immigration, environment, and civil rights are at a forefront, I ask that you keep an open mind. I ask that you take this opportunity to learn from an unlikely teacher, be open to a voice that expresses from a place of marginalization, and to gaze compassionately through the eyes of empathy. As part of a series called Letters from Death Row on gawker.com, Ray Jasper, a man imprisoned on death row in Texas wrote a powerful letter in 2014 prior to his execution that eloquently outlines empathy and its impact on our thinking and actions. Below is an excerpt from his letter:
Your words struck a chord with me. You said that my perspective is different and therefore my words have a sort of value. Yet, you’re talking to a young man that’s been judged unworthy to breathe the same air you breathe. That’s like a hobo on the street walking up to you and you ask him for spare change.
Without any questions, you’ve given me a blank canvas. I’ll only address what’s on my heart. Next month, the State of Texas has resolved to kill me like some kind of rabid dog, so indirectly, I guess my intention is to use this as some type of platform because this could be my final statement on earth.
I think ’empathy’ is one of the most powerful words in this world that is expressed in all cultures. This is my underlining theme. I do not own a dictionary, so I can’t give you the Oxford or Webster definition of the word, but in my own words, empathy means ‘putting the shoe on the other foot.’
Empathy. A rich man would look at a poor man, not with sympathy, feeling sorrow for the unfortunate poverty, but also not with contempt, feeling disdain for the man’s poverish state, but with empathy, which means the rich man would put himself in the poor man’s shoes, feel what the poor man is feeling, and understand what it is to be the poor man.
Empathy breeds proper judgment. Sympathy breeds sorrow. Contempt breeds arrogance. Neither are proper judgments because they’re based on emotions. That’s why two people can look at the same situation and have totally different views. We all feel differently about a lot of things. Empathy gives you an inside view. It doesn’t say ‘If that was me…’, empathy says, ‘That is me.’
He said it perfectly:
EMPATHY BREEDS PROPER JUDGEMENT. EMPATHY SAYS “THAT IS ME”.
I highly recommend you read the whole letter. It’s moving and relevant to our times.