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The Power of Empathy

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I was always a sensitive kid growing up. My brother called me a “drama queen” and I have to admit I did have a flair for the dramatic. But in truth my sensitivity came, as it does for most children, from the gift of empathy. I felt part of every gentle smile, every sideways glance, every tensed body, every laugh – as if it were my own.

I learned over time that emotional and empathetic balance can be a tricky thing to find in this world and being “sensitive” or even just aware of what is going on around you can often be a gift hard to bear. Growing up for me was a repeated process of opening up and then shutting down again. Like a lot of sensitive kids I struggled with anxiety: an underlying feeling that something was seriously wrong. And, to be honest, from what I’ve learned as an adult, I realize now that I was right. Something was and is seriously wrong with a great deal of how the world works.

Thus I see the logic of why many people shut down emotionally, to a certain extent, in an effort to protect themselves from the insanity and suffering in this world. But I have also come to realize when we disconnect from the suffering in the world, we also disconnect from the impact our decisions make on the global community, nature and other species on this planet. Thus, we actually exacerbate the very same social and ethical crises we are choosing to shut out.

Strangely though, what this shows me is that there is still hope for humanity. Because behind many speciesist, sexist, racist, homophobic and generally bigoted displays of ego and pride there are often individuals who have learned to “protect” themselves from the world by suppressing their capacity for empathy… And what has been learned can be unlearned.

I saw this very clearly when I became vegan. As I opened my eyes to the suffering of my fellow animals, I finally saw the role I played in their captivity, torture, and deaths. When I recognized this I had no choice but to change my actions in accordance with my conscience. From then on, it has been a continued process of looking at my life and seeing where I am turning a blind eye… where I am still closing myself to the plight of others.

This is what empathy calls us to do and why we shut ourselves off from it. It calls us to recognize the suffering in the world and instead of hardening ourselves to it or collapsing under its weight, to let it spur us into action so that we may help alleviate that suffering.

To do this we must learn to open our hearts once again and then push beyond the weight of our own feelings about what is happening in the world, into a place of action and conscious choice, for this is where change and hope will begin.

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