An essay on the power of empathy.

In writing this Valentine’s Day post, I liked imagining that I was standing in a circle with the fifty or so people I love most in the world. Those people span the spectrum of religious and political beliefs. They voted for lots of different candidates. They care about a range of issues.

But I’ve been troubled lately, and for a long time, really, by the way we’ve failed to talk to and love each other in a real and practical way, across our various lines of difference. The way we’re supposed to as good people and (certainly, if this is what you believe) as Christians.

Put simply, we have forgotten how to be empathetic.

Since you’re reading this, will you stand in the circle with me?

Let’s put the ugliness right in the center, addressing it head on. Everybody just stand here for a second, okay? No one leave. You can go to the bathroom later.

The problem is tribalism exacerbated by social media. Does everyone have a good view from their position in the circle?

First, let’s acknowledge that tribalism on its own isn’t necessarily insidious. It’s a biological human predisposition to crave identity and community, so it makes sense that over millions of years of evolution (insert dirty joke about homo erectus here!), we’ve honed ourselves into particularly social animals who surround themselves with like people. Some will try to argue that this affinity for similar peers in and of itself is an evil, and I’d disagree. I’d say that’s pretty much just biology at work. And sure, ancient man disagreed, came to blows, beat each other in the head with sticks (I’m assuming), but those people in a tribe all had something in common: they needed each other to survive. And so, despite their differences, they learned to live together. The human penscient for tribalism is old news - ancient, even.

What’s new, and what can cause tribalism to quickly become insidious, is our unique ability to connect. Through the magic of the Internet, we now have access to people all over the world. And, weirdly enough, as though we were all in some kind of giant Zuckerberg-ian social experiment, we have used this never-before-held power of connection to do the same damn thing we’ve always done: seek and reach out to people are like us. We can friend or follow whomever we choose. We have found “our people” - those who think like us, talk like us, and want the same things we want. We are comforted by their existence. We are energized by their like-mindedness. We feel validated, affirmed, and (maybe most dangerously) celebrated by the having our beliefs supported.

But the moment they post something we find unsavory, or politically problematic, it takes one click to “mute” that person forever. Never again will we be faced with the ugly reality that we know someone with whom we disagree. And in doing so, we have created as many echo chambers as there are Facebook/Twitter/Instagram users. It’s as though each of us has fallen down our own specifically curated well, deepening with every new think piece and article we consume. I daresay that mine is the most ideologically self-congratulatory generation of all (regardless of what the ideology actually is).

(All the millennials just closed the browser. STAY WITH ME, PEOPLE! I promise I’m getting to the point!)

So, okay. We see the problem.

Now what are its effects?

Put simply, it’s that we can no longer seem to communicate with people who don’t share our viewpoints. It’s like we’re all trying to have a conversation by opening our front doors, screaming our opinions, and then slamming the doors closed just after we’re finished talking, retreating into the familiar with slaps on the back and handshakes from all those who agree with us, telling us what a good point we just made. And if you’re inside the house and dissent? Please. You’re shoved out on the front stoop to fend for yourself like those poor bastards in Bird Box (which I give a solid B, because it stressed me out so much I cried blood).

Being reaffirmed by strangers makes us uniquely confident that our opinions simply must be the right ones. And, sincerely, who can blame us? Public affirmation breeds certainty in our assertions.

In fact, that is exactly what happens every day on Twitter. We publish our opinions (the snarkier, the better), blast our opponents, and then feel self-satisfied for having generated such a sick burn. The more entrenched you are in your camp, the better you fare. There is no room for moderation. There is no room for nuance. It’s black or white, this or that - fraternizing with the enemy is verboden. We live in a time where even our elected leadership hops on Twitter to sass it up, counting on the fact that we’ll love it because it’s novel that someone who’s supposed to be buttoned-up can hang with the cool kids on Twitter. And we do love it. That’s very troubling to me.

Solution?

My humble submission is that we have to toss our phones into the center of the circle and LOOK AT EACH OTHER IN THE EYEBALLS.

How many stories do we know of people who had very strong anti-gay opinions until their son or daughter came out of the closet, opening their hearts to the reality that gay people are people, deserving of love and respect like anyone else? That’s because when we know someone - when we start to think of someone as a son or daughter or friend or someone’s mom or dad - it’s much more difficult to hate them, or mute them, or call them an ignorant racist or a baby-killing socialist.

In thinking about how to practically talk about empathy, a kind of amorphous concept, one concrete example came to mind.

I hope you’ll indulge me, because I promise that I am not a self-inflated ass who thinks she’s good at everything (for examples of my many flaws see: my weirdly long toes, math, confidence that I am right 100% of the time when arguing with my husband). Normally I’d share a story of someone else doing a good job because I think talking about other people’s strengths is a lot better than talking about my own. But I think it’s important to tell you that it was me, because I want to explain my in-the-moment thoughts and reactions in detail. So this is a good example of putting radical empathy into practice in a way that helped me and (I think) helped X, who you’ll meet in a sec.

In 2012, I was completing my second year of Teach For America in Huntsville, Alabama. Trayvon Martin’s case was all over the news, and George Zimmerman was on trial for murder. The hearing was televised as his verdict was handed down on this particular Friday night. I was visiting Birmingham, sitting in a bar in Homewood with a few friends of mine, one of whom was X. X is a white Republican male, my age, raised in a very conservative Christian denomination. X and I are about as different as it gets when it comes to politics or theology, and I, to be honest, was nervous to be sitting with him as the coverage rang through the bar. We knew what the other thought about this case and the tension was palpable.

My stomach did flips as the judge declared that Zimmerman, who’d murdered a young man that looked like the students I was teaching at the time, had been acquitted.

But I saw, in this moment, a gift sitting before me. X was a person who I knew thought Zimmerman was 100% in the right; who sided with him unequivocally; who would, in four years, vote for Donald Trump. He and I were on opposite sides in this moment and would be in many others to come. But I’m not good at ignoring the elephant, so I started asking (not peppering him, but genuinely asking him) why he felt the verdict was just.

His first, and understandably defensive, impulse was to joke around and toss out a couple of remarks that he knew would press my buttons. But I wanted to show him that I was genuinely interested in his opinion, not as some kind of self-righteous case study, but because I cared (and still care) about him as a person. Once the walls were down, he explained his rationale. And I agreed with exactly 0 of what he shared. Some of the things he said made me have a physiological reaction - I felt a heat start spreading through my chest when he described his version of the Trayvon Martin shooting. And I responded and continued to ask questions.

At the risk of making that story sound like I, a progressive-leaning moderate, descended on this “poor dumb Republican” and showed him the light, let me say plainly that he would not remember this conversation at all. It was a fleeting moment in his life. But in MINE, it was a revelation. It was a rare window into the heart of someone I love but deeply disagree with, and a chance to exercise the empathy muscle that would need to be strong for the rest of my life. I wasn’t trying to change X’s mind - I couldn’t, frankly, even if I’d been trying - I just wanted to understand where he was coming from. This single conversation laid the groundwork for many future conversations between X and me. Once, at a wedding reception, a few good ol’ boys were razzing me about having voted for Hillary Clinton. And even though I knew that X voted straight-ticket different-from-me, and agreed politically with the guys who were giving me a hard time, I was comforted by his presence there. Because of that one conversation in the bar years before, I knew that X knew that I wasn’t just a set of opinions. He knew my heart and my intentions and, most importantly, that I’m just a person, after all. And so is he.

Waiting to respond. Swallowing our maybe-hateful first impulse. Pushing ourselves to see deeper into someone. Asking a clarifying question. Saying when something has hurt our feelings, but being willing to move on and accept an apology. Extending grace. Asking for forgiveness. Assuming the best about other people until proven otherwise.

Really, empathy is about understanding. If anyone wants anything done in this country - if we want to actually MOVE THE BALL - we’re going to have to examine why we stop considering someone worthy of our time when we find out we disagree with them. I think it’s because it’s safer to do that. Less scary. Less risky. Really, though - what’s the worst that could happen?

At the very worst, our worst fears will be confirmed. Some people really are racist. Some conversations aren’t safe to have because of that very fact. And with those people, it is our job (or the jobs of our colleagues in this work - AKA allies rather than the subjects of the hate themselves) to continue trying. Not one single person ever changed their mind because someone else yelled at them about how stupid they were for a while.

At the very best, we discover that the person across from us at the bar whose opinions give us the hot-chests is a guy who is actually up for talking to us about a hot-button topic. And up for listening, too. And in that case, our job is to both talk and listen, to be honest, and to hang in there beyond the inevitable clash of beliefs.

Cultivating empathy is something very concrete and something very hard to do. It takes discipline to train your mind and heart not to balk at something someone says that turns your stomach. To move beyond ourselves. Accepting that we will probably be offended and also inadvertently do some offending throughout the course of a conversation, and deciding to stick with it anyway.

So, anyway. Thanks for standing here. Why don’t we stretch our legs? Like any good meeting, there are snacks, so grab one of those tiny bags of Oreos or Cheez-Its from the snack basket. Maybe pull a slip of paper from this hat of hot-button topics and dive in with whoever goes for the same snack you do.

What’s the worst that could happen?

This is thirty.

I am thirty today. Three zero. Thirrrrty. For many years, I have wondered what today would be like.

Like the Ice Bucket Challenge and many challenges before and after, there’s a new “challenge” circulating called the “Ten Year Challenge.” Its timing is curious, because I’ve already been reflecting on the last decade; for me, the Ten Year Challenge is from my 20th birthday to my 30th. 

So I dug around in my old LiveJournal (you bet your ass I had one of those and updated it religiously for about 5 straight years - a treasure trove of all my thoughts and words and feelings from age 15 to age 20 or so), wondering if there was anything there that would help encapsulate this stretch of time. 

Boy, was there ever. We’ll get there in a sec. 

The thing about 20 to 30 is that a lot of life happens. When I was 20, I was a sophomore at Birmingham-Southern College, dating my high school boyfriend, and celebrated my birthday while doing a Jan-term in Nashville, playing personal assistant to then-Broadway star Laura Bell Bundy. At 30, I’m living in Asheville, North Carolina with my husband of four-and-a-half years, my one-year-old son, and our nearly five-year-old dog, Tom Hanks. I am jobless, but still a writer.

When I was gearing up to write this post, I couldn’t decide on a direction for it. I still can’t. The “morals of the story” are bouncing around like fish in an aquarium. I need my thought fish to calm down so I can catch one. 

My son is sleeping and it’s sleeting outside because I live halfway up a mountain and it does that here. I never thought I’d live outside Alabama. And I do. Many times in my LiveJournal I lamented that there was no such person as the one I married: both attractive and kind; both caring and ambitious. And yet, I found one. I said to a friend recently, as we sat in my car at 4 in the morning (a rare and delightful night out for this young mom), “I’m thirty and I have no job that I love. Am I washed up? It’s over for me.” 

He said, “I’m thirty and I have no boyfriend. Look at your life. If it’s over for you, what does that mean for me?” What my friend meant was that everything is a trick of perspective, and that I needed to get a grip on mine, because life goes by in a blink, and he is JUST SO RIGHT. Mary Oliver died yesterday and I found myself unexpectedly weepy all morning. I didn’t know yet, but I’m certain that her energy leaving the planet was a wallop to the hearts of all feeling people. And I have all my grandparents still earth-side. And I am thirty. I think God knows that I’m just not finished being formed by them so here they all are with me, just as present living their lives in their houses right this moment as the trees outside my window.

And I don’t feel melancholy! Not at all, in fact. I feel so damn GRATEFUL. The phrase “incandescently happy” comes to mind (thanks, Jane Austen). I feel like I’ve lived a hundred lives in the last ten years. I was a student and then I was a teacher and then I was a teacher of teachers. I went to South Africa as a United Methodist Youth ambassador and I went to Alabama and America’s Junior Miss as a Decatur ambassador. I have dined in America’s Finest Restaurant (hello, Highlands!) many times, and am a regular at the Waffle House on Tunnel Road. I do not believe in leaving the house without earrings on but I also got a tattoo recently (if you made it this far, let’s not make a big deal of it - I’ll tell you about it when I see you). And yeah, sure, some of those things could be dumb lyrics written only because they’re dichotomies about the stupid Manic Pixie Dream Girl that that guy sings about in “Meet Virginia,” (She wears high heels when she exercises - Are you fucking serious? That’s a crazy thing to do!), but the real thing about it is that everyone has such a multifaceted and layered life. And that’s kind of the wonder, isn’t it? It’s that no one is just one thing. It’s just about paying attention. It’s like...human experience baklava. The layers are paper thin, and you really have to stare to see them all.

Anyway, back to the point: the old LiveJournal posts. 

When digging in the archives to find a birthday post from January 18, 2009, I found two that I thought were of interest. The first is about what I want to be when I grow up.

Purpose. 1/15/09

I'm feeling like I could do a million different things right now. Most people would say that's a great thing - that I have parents and mentors who've encouraged me to the point of possibility. And that's true. It is a great thing. 

However. 

I am overwhelmed with the "if." And the "how?" And the "where?" as well. The following things are on my list of dream lives to live. Can't we just have more than one? 

1. Get married early. Travel. Kids. Not work so much, but be an incredible mother (like mine) and do non-profit work later in life. 

2. Throw it all away and go to Broadway. Figure out how to expand my range and grow a chest voice and take over for Laura Bell Bundy or Idina Menzel or someone. Live in New York. Be glamorous. 

3. Go to law school and work for International Justice Mission. Become best friends with Gary Haugen. 

4. Go to seminary at Emory or Vandy, work closely with IJM and write for a Christian publication. 

5. Get a graduate degree in journalism and follow great stories all over the planet, ending up in some extremely beige house with a closet full of things Meg Ryan would wear in "You've Got Mail" and a husband who's aged like Harrison Ford. And some kind of prestigious award.

Of course, all these paths include a husband and kids. But I've got enough ambition and enough dreams to fill up at least 5 lifetimes. Why am I limited to only one? I'm converting to Buddhism tomorrow. 

Maybe the right chance will come along. Or maybe I'm supposed to go tackle it in the street. 

Here's what I do know. Double stuff Oreos? Fabulous.

——

So for now, young Mary Catherine, we’re here at Option 1. But there are a lot of possibilities here, sister. I mean, Option 2 is probably out. Sure. But Option 5, or something kind of like it? Yeah. I think we can make it work. 

And then there’s this, which makes me smile and cry and be reminded of all the versions of myself (and ourselves) that exist within me (and within you) at all times, just waiting to be called up: 

——

The fissure. 1/25/09

I turned twenty on Monday of last week, and I've been thinking a lot since then. There are these weird flashes that I've been getting of me as an eight, or eleven, or seventeen year old. I remember how it felt to think I knew it all back then. And then I think that my twenty six year old self will be remembering twenty and thinking how foolish the twenty year old was to be judging her seventeen year old self on all her mistakes. It just seems like it's going to be an endless cycle of learning and remembering, and I think the trick is not to beat yourself up about the things you didn't know while balancing the knowledge that you don't know it all. Make sense? Great.

Being single has allowed me, so far this year, to become extremely self-aware. That has always been something I'm good at, but recently I've realized just how much being in a relationship with someone else affects my relationship with myself. It's hard for me to articulate the different ways that I change when I'm single, but they are very real and very bold in my own mind.

Sometimes at night, or even in the day -- passing a cluster of stores, or a tree, or even a smell -- I will think of Oxford [England], and think of my home there [over the summer]. And some moments, like this one, make those movie reels inside my mind play memories extra slowly, so that somehow my body floats backwards and forwards simultaneously into what I was and what I will become. And in this fissure between space and time, it becomes easy to live without the worry of a twenty six year old blonde wrinkling her brow. 

— —

Mary Oliver asked me once, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

Well...

Here’s to thirty. And to embracing the twenty year old. And the eight year old. And to letting both those girls do the talking every once in a while - because damn, twenty year old me was doing okay in the writing department! Here’s to more writing, more living, less apologizing, continued focus on skincare. To less time on the lightbox in my pocket and more time with my dog. Here’s to all the boys I loved in my twenties and the one I never thought walked the earth who put a ring on my finger. Here’s to my son. Here’s to no such thing as one version, to the endless possibilities, to throwing myself a bone, to lapping up my life. To what I don’t know. To learning and remembering. To tackling it in the street. To the next ten years. 

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Learning to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

If you’re like me, you do an okay job at recycling, but not a great one. Recently, a study was released that said we pretty much have 12 years to get it together or else the world is going to explode.  

(Okay, maybe that’s dramatic, but it’s not much better than that. You can read it for yourself here.)  

While the majority of the change needs to come from large companies and their factories, there are simple things that you and I can do to help, too. Every tiny contribution is something!  

Since moving to Asheville, I’ve gotten to encounter a lot of folks who absolutely crush the recycling game. Not only that, but they’ve found ways to lessen their environmental impact that have taught me so much! I felt a little daunted by this concept at first because I’m not someone who can, let’s say, live without central air (obviously I can, I’m being a brat) - but I’m dipping my toe into the pool and taking my transformation into Eco Girl one step at a time.

Many of you may be thinking, “Yeah, dumb dumb - we’ve been on this train for a long time. You’re not telling us anything new.” If you’re one of those people, I salute you. If you’re more like I am, here are some things I’ve recently been inspired (I polled Instagram, too - so many of your answers made it into this post!) by that have helped me feel like I’m helping, even if it seems small! 

1. Wildly reducing the paper products we use.  

Let’s be realistic: I have a 10-month-old and a dog. I can’t NOT have paper towels in the house. But I used to use them for everything. Are we sitting down for a meal? Tear off a paper towel to use as a napkin. Do I need something to stick my bagel on in the morning? Paper towel. Mac threw solid food all over the floor under his high chair? Paper towel. 

We have cloth dish towels that we use to dry our hands off, but we were under-utilizing them. I recently bought a pack of surgical-grade towels from Amazon that are coming in so handy with all of Mac’s spills and any kitchen messes. Now, I just toss a dirty towel in the laundry rather than throwing a paper towel away. It’s been a week since I started this effort and I’ve only used 4 (!!!) paper towels! That’s an enormous difference for our family. Hoping to get down to zero!

2. No straws, napkins, or cutlery at restaurants; using glass containers to store food or reusing plastic containers from takeout. 

This can be a tough one if you’re driving through because of a road trip or some other truly time-sensitive reason, but if not, it’s a great way to change your habits. I stopped using plastic straws this summer! It’s a really easy thing to refuse - I’ve started saying, “No straw, please!” And it’s as simple as that.  

There are great companies that make washable metal or silicon straws, and even cutlery packets that you can take with you and re-use if you’re going somewhere that would give you plastic silverware. Easy and great! Best part - the people with whom you’re dining will also be inspired! Someone on Instagram even suggested bringing your own takeout containers to a restaurant from which you know you’ll take home leftovers. It’s brilliant!

Another great food-related suggestion I got is to buy glass containers for food storage and/or put containers you already have to use. Pay attention to which restaurants deliver food with compostable or reusable containers, and patronize their business. We vote with our dollars. 

And, sadly, red meat consumption has been proven to be tough on the environment. As a non-meat-eater, this one isn’t tough for me (just another excuse not to eat tons of meat!), but it’s a great way to make a change that’s both healthy for you and the earth.  

3. Keeping the AC at a reasonable temp.  

It’s really tough to do this one for me because I am a SUPER WIMP about heat (that’s what growing up in Alabama will do to you. I have summer PTSD). However, I guesssssss the planet is more important than my comfort UGHGHHGHGH. 

We keep our AC set to 74, although some of my friends keep theirs as high as 78 and many of my Asheville buddies don’t even have/use their AC at all. MIND BLOWING. I’m not at that level, but I can avoid cooling my house to freezing temps.  

 4. Buy in bulk. 

This is one I haven’t started putting into practice yet, so I’m excited to try. I’m learning so much about what products are sold in “single-serving” packages that are totally unnecessary. Toothbrushes, for example. Why buy one, individually packaged toothbrush when you could buy a pack of 6 and save packaging waste? 

This goes for food, too - buying in bulk at places like Costco can often save waste and save money. Items that are great bulk purchases: cereal or oatmeal; peanut butter; granola or any kind of protein/power bar; snack food like raisins, cashews, almonds; coffee, the list goes on and on. It also just occurred to me while writing this that this concept totally applies to toiletries as well!

5. Checking into what is included in curbside recycling.  

Believe it or not, lots of things you’d think are recyclable aren’t actually accepted by curbside services. Plastic grocery store bags are one of those items for us! It took me many moons to realize that. I’d been putting them in the bin without knowing - now, I know that if I take them back to our local grocery store, they ensure the bags get taken to the proper facility.  

Plastic bags that come from the dry cleaners are another no-no. Who knew?  

6. Vote! 

This might be the biggest way that we can make systemic change. We are at a point in our global society where unfortunately, small, individual actions aren’t going to be enough to change the future of our planet. Enter: people who can make a big difference.

This is a great one because it isn’t even a partisan issue! It’s based in science and data, which is a refreshing black and white in the midst of what can seem like a sea of uncertain grey. Climate change is real, global warming is real, and we need to elect leaders who both accept those facts and are ready to do something to address it. Midterms are coming - look into which candidates support saving our planet and go vote for them!  

And if you need help, here is a list of folks currently serving in Congress who do not acknowledge climate change as being real. You know what to do, y’all - boot ‘em! The stakes are just too high not to.