Catherine Durkin Robinson: Empathy for others who really are 'others'


Most of us have the capacity to show concern for others, but way too often it’s only when those “others” are a lot like us.

It should surprise no one that a mouthy, opinionated woman like me is an avowed feminist.

Oh and the LGBT movement is stocked full of gay people.

Plus the Republican Party attracts bankers and hedge fund managers.

My sons are at that age when they must begin volunteering their time, for honor clubs and scholarship opportunities. When discussing altruism, I encourage them to find causes and movements that resonate. Social action should be personal and it’s important to find meaning in what we do to help.

But I also want my kids to advocate for others – real “others” – people who look and sound different from them, people with different backgrounds, who come from different cultures. That’s right. My twin sons are going to have to champion some causes for people who don’t hail from an Irish/Jewish/Buddhist/vegetarian/liberal family with big foreheads, big noses and even bigger hair.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

But it is possible.

What about the rest of us?

I ask myself this question all the time: Can you empathize with someone who makes different choices than you would?

Think about that for a moment.

Can you?

Can you then advocate for them?

We all think we’re open-minded and many of us believe we are all about “live and let live.” It’s easy to say we do and we are. Quite another to act like it.

A few years ago, I wrote for a paper where the editor was a gay man, liberal, and not surprisingly a vocal advocate for gay rights. I tried to get him interested in education issues. He resisted. The reason? He didn’t have kids, so education wasn’t really his thing.

This stumped me for a second. Beyond the obvious reasons why education affects people who don’t have children – property values and crime rates to name just two, I had another point to make.

I told him I’d never been gay. Never had an inkling of a desire to hook up with a woman. Not even in college.

And yet I’ve written about, supported and advocated for gay rights.

Never been a victim of apartheid or AIDS.

Never needed an abortion.

Never been black.

Never been a Sea World whale or a circus elephant.

Never been diagnosed with breast cancer, heart disease or a learning disability.

Never been a low-income family in need of school choice.

Never been a sex worker.

Believe it or not.

Never been particularly religious or into obscene art, either.

And yet I advocate on behalf of all of these because it’s the right thing to do, because we live in a diverse society where social justice, human rights and animal rights should be a priority.

I made up my mind a long time ago that I’m consistently pro-choice across the board and support anything that helps alleviate suffering and poverty. All other allegiances and alliances be damned.

So that’s pretty much it.

I’m not perfect, far from it. I have moments when I get all judge-y, whether I meet someone who eats too much, seems a little too knowledgeable about reality television shows, has never read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or is determined to vote for Ted Cruz.

I’ve been known to roll my eyes and make snarky comments at fundamentalists – before being escorted from the bar.

I’m inordinately rude to people who dare to insult the Beastie Boys.

That’s usually when one of my friends or family members reminds me to check myself.

Am I really pro-choice across the board?

Or only when someone makes a choice I understand?

A choice I can agree with?

I once heard Al Franken joke about how Nancy Reagan all of a sudden supported stem cell research when Ronnie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Dick Cheney loves his gay daughter and didn’t really much care for laws that discriminated against her. People who weren’t well-known for empathy, but seemed to get it.

When it affected them.

I’d argue it’s all of us who find empathy when we find ourselves literally in someone else’s shoes, rather than simply picturing ourselves there. We harbor prejudices and beliefs that don’t make sense, and sometimes show very little compassion.

Teaching our children to see past their own circumstances and defend those with whom they disagree is just one of many ways we can ensure they’re more evolved than us. A trait that will benefit them in the long run.

And lead to a much better, and wiser, world for all of us.

Catherine Durkin Robinson is a political advocate and organizer, living in Tampa. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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