“There is a gap somehow between empathy and activism. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of soul force, something that emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empower us to act. Once you identify your inner genius, will be able to take action, whether it’s writing a check or digging a well.” (Sue Monk Claire, author of The Secret Life of Bees)
Let’s look at both the why of that gap between activism and empathy, and perhaps a few thoughts on closing it. Never in our lifetime has there been a more urgent need for activists, not only in new philanthropic foundations for the developing world, but in the so-called developed world. It is here where having it so good for so long engenders apathy and indifference and expectations unwarranted by the direction and the speed of threatening change….political, environmental, economic, and national security/personal freedom and human rights.
Voting percentages ranging from 35-40% in most “democratic” elections at local provincial and national votes is a black cheque for all politicians to ignore that silent and absent majority knowing they will be unlikely to object to whatever steps those politicians take. “My vote doesn’t count” is a facile and lame excuse for indifference. “It doesn’t matter who wins, they are all corrupt,” is another “automatic negative thought” that exposes a pathetic level of ignorance and powerlessness that can only be confronted through a conscious, pro-active dedicated ambition to learn more, to question more, to engage more fully in the conversations at the water cooler, in the coffee shop, at the local hockey game, or even on those hunting and fishing excursions.
Empathy, the capacity and willingness to identify with the pain of another, however, is seemingly inexhaustible, coming to the fore whenever a tragedy occurs. Empathy also takes so many different forms that it would take a library stack of volumes to name and describe them all. Humans, being hardwired as social creatures, seem to have a permanent soft core of identification with another’s individual pain suffered through a death, an accident, a fire, a life-threatening illness, a divorce or even emotional or physical trauma. Yet somehow, there is no political ideology attached to helping a neighbour, simply an act of kindness. There is also no expectation of the requirement of membership in some political party, including the noxious expectation to raise money, to expose oneself to a political campaign, to associate with others who would never make it onto our personal list of “friends”, nor to submit to a party policy platform. We also conceive, design, execute and deliver our unique empathic response to the suffering person or family.
Foodbanks, various ‘missions’ for the homeless and the destitute, literacy programs for those who cannot read and write….while a step up from a neighbour to a helping hand for those we do not know, are still causes that evoke empathic responses, mostly of a “token” or minimal sort, like dropping off some groceries after a shopping trip, or dropping off some extra’s at Christmas or Thanksgiving. And the demonstrated need for such facilities continues to grow exponentially, given the cutbacks in social programs and the rising numbers of families attempting to survive on more than one minimum-wage jobs.
“Ride for”…..projects, too, to collect funds for research or for a specific project, along with golf tournaments for a ‘cause’ or hockey games for a similar cause, or service club donations/membership, all of them worthy and appropriate, are nevertheless exempt from a deep and profound “soul force” in most cases, that offers a level of commitment and passion (in fact one’s identity) that could qualify as activism.
Activists are so impassioned about either the injustice they vehemently oppose or (the other side of the same coin) the justice of their actions to reverse an injustice that they demonstrate a level of commitment and dedication to their chosen issue that others would and do consider “intense,” or even exaggerated, or perhaps unbalanced and misguided. Let’s look at the current Standing Rock “activists” who are camping out in North Dakota, protesting the proposed pipeline. While the Army Corps of Engineers have issued a closing order for the encampment, these people are prepared to challenge even that government edict. Could violence erupt if and when the ACE move in? Of course! Would such violence be justified? That depends on your perspective….if you agree with the protesters, then probably. If you are either luke-warm or undecided, or more likely uninformed about the specific details of the reasons behind the protest, then you would likely consider violence to be unjustified.
And here is where the ‘rubber meets the road’ as it were. Activists are prepared to confront the “authorities” if and when their activism is threatened. Sister Helen Prejean, for one, has conducted a protracted and highly visible campaign against capital punishment, through her commitment to men sentenced to the death penalty. Her book “Dead Man Walking” prompted a movie of the same title, and while there are those who disagree with her, and probably have threatened her in a variety of ways, at 76 she remains active, and not only active in this cause, but serving as a model for aspiring activists.
There is a danger that postulating such a role model could prompt others to turn away from considering activism, given the high ideals and expectations of the Sister’s commitment. Visiting prisons, like visiting hospitals, is always going to provoke anxieties about how prisoners got to where they are, and how to help them. Hospital visits, too, evoke feelings of both angst and the promise of some tiny hint of sunlight poking into the corner of a patient’s perhaps lonely existence.
And then, after the conscience and the heart have been wakened and the potential way for each person to begin to consider a pathway into activity of visiting, or perhaps teaching, or perhaps joining an advocacy group has been considered, investigated and reflected upon, one’s own life often takes a turn that requires a new focus of time and energy. Nevertheless, the tiny voice, “I think I can” will not be silenced, if the urging is real and the intuition and feeling about the visions of taking action (don’t we all envision most new steps today?) seem to feel “right. And so, in spite of all the reasons to question taking action, we make a phone call, or well do a google search, or we pick up a book or a pamphlet to add some nurture to what up to now has been a mere flicker in the eye of our imagination.
And then, we pause and withdraw because some seemingly pressing issue takes our attention in another direction again. But that still small voice can still be heard whispering in our inner ear, “I still think I can.”
And the persistence of that little voice, linked to our basic sense of justice and even empathy, especially considering the short and long-term implications of both taking action and of remaining on the sidelines, continues to haunt our walks and our prayers and our imagination.
Because we have already made a first phone call, that person inexplicably calls, or emails about a meeting, or an event, to which s/he issues an invitation. And now what are we going to do? We have been “outed” from our secret vision of becoming a participant to a challenge to take another active step.
Again we beg for time. And we continue to question if this is something we really do want to commit to. We now see the additional meetings and the additional expectations even though our action will all be voluntary. We know that once ‘engaged’ there will be additional invites and challenges and opportunities and time and energy will be required, and is our life not already busy enough?
And so the gap between empathy and activism remains wide, and our individual opportunity to begin to close it ever so slight is still on hold.
Perhaps it is the search for the “right” cause that keeps us at bay from jumping into action. Another lame excuse: just take a first step of action on behalf of a single cause and you will be amazed at the feelings that arise within. The sense of both excitement and engagement along with the conversations with people you did not know even existed and the new information that justifies the validity of the cause will ennoble you and hook you at least for the moment.
And then….as the cause’s needs become more clear and more desperate, your commitment will only grow and your resistance will dissipate.
And, should you be wondering about what to do….the whole community is a smorgasbord of opportunities just waiting for your unique perspective and your talents and your time and energy.
Environmental protection is under threat now that Trump is going to Washington.
Prisons, especially the private, for-profit need to be opposed in the face of elevated rates of incarceration.
Police departments use citizen volunteers for many roles that would not be covered without their assistance.
Palliative care, for those in the last stages of their life, is a huge and very worthy volunteer opportunity.
Volunteer rescue groups can always use another committed trainee, who can eventually play a full role when people get lost.
Choirs always need musical voices and musical temperaments to round out their various sections.
Church schools, and school athletic teams always need instructors and coaches.
The Blind need to have books read and recorded so they can “read” them orally.
Foodbanks and shelters need human resources desperately, as the need for their services spikes.
Immigrants need volunteers to drive them to doctor appointments, language classes, and social gatherings, not to mention bureaucratic appointments.
And then there are the social service agencies and hospitals all crying out for additional human resource help, from volunteers.
Volunteering can and often is the first step towards full activism fighting for a cause you believe in. And, if it is the more moderate and less risky, then for those who like to enter ‘at the beach’ and not off the high diving board, it can be a way to get started.
And we have not mentioned a political party!
So, let the light of opportunity shine in your mind’s eye for you to seek and to find a new challenge to offer your mind and your spirit to a cause of your choosing. Let the light into the most private and most secret corners of your psyche….and may it lead you to join a corps of dedicated, committed, personable, ambitious and authentic professionals making the world a better place for all of us who, with you, will develop and generate even more light shining into the psychic darkness that surrounds the planet.
Your soul force is waiting for you to take it dancing in a cause with a ‘beat’ that fits you and your life.