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Have We Lost Our Empathy?

With all the news stories about New York’s abortion laws, social media has been buzzing with opinions. Generally, I am confident in what I believe for myself, my husband, and daughter, and don’t feel a need to contribute to the political firestorm that has taken over our communities. I have always been secure in my stances. I have full confidence in the tough choices I have personally faced. But occasionally humans act in such a way that is it not only threatening to my sensibilities (although I don’t offend easily when it comes to my life’s choices), but in ways that also threaten to destruct us as a species. We don’t always have to agree, but we often take that to mean “let’s make this ugly.”

Until someone is in a position to fully understand another’s plight, it is easy to judge. It is easy to assume we know the facts, even when we don’t. It is easy to get caught up in our sound-bite worlds, listening vehemently to those who agree with us and fighting against those who don’t. And we don’t stop there. A good disagreement never hurt anyone, and in fact, when we hear all sides of an issue we have the potential to be kinder, smarter, fiercer, and stronger.

Instead, we smear good people and even better intentions. We reject others. We assume we know some else’s life better than they know their own. And for that reason, we let our egos get the better of us. What we think should be true for all.

What is difficult for us humans is to believe we’d ever make that choice. I know. I was there at one time, too–as a young 20-something before my first pregnancy. Before I learned that some pregnancies don’t go as planned. In fact, many pregnancies do not go as planned. Some go in ways that are manageable, while others become nightmares. It is human instinct to protect ourselves from the gory and the ugly. Most of us do. We hide behind “news” stories we see on partisan websites. We spread them about on Facebook and Twitter as if we have all the answers. We find security in knowing we’d make the “right” choice while others are heathens.

If as many people acted as cruel as the memes and the over-the-top headlines circulating online would lead me to believe, I would lock my doors and stop taking calls from everyone. But, I’m a bit more optimistic and don’t believe we have so many such sociopaths walking amongst us. My psychological training tells me that most humans want to be good and aim for happiness. We don’t dream of total destruction of innocent babies. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t faced with tough situations.

It’s easy to say we are empathic. We try to care about others and know what it feels like to be outside of our ourselves. Yet we cannot leave behind our own lives, experiences, and what we are taught by our parents, teachers, and religious leaders. This is a fault of ours as humans, yet it is what makes us who we are.

We often mistaken “empathy” for “sympathy”. And we often put our sympathies in well-meaning but misguided places.

But forced to really face abortion first-hand opened my eyes to what empathy really feels like.

Snippets I see of posts online reference the basic rhetoric we all are meant to hear. We are fed through the media what is easy to digest and are spared the truth. I see from the black-and-whiteness of this issue where on that line the people in my life lie. Those who are protected from reality are also the least empathic. Perhaps it’s not their fault, but that is horrifying.

There are far more reasons than “birth control” for which abortion is used. And far more than “just” rape cases (which is a segment of this issue I admit to know little about and therefore don’t feel I can effectively comment. My initial feeling is that it seems heartless to cast aside anyone who has been through trauma of any sort).

Until I was thrust into the world of a nonviable pregnancy, abortion, and threats to my own health, I had no idea what many women go through. For many, the choice isn’t flippant. We don’t decide one day that the baby was an “oops”. While we cannot deny that there are some who abort for personal and not medical reasons, that does not discount the countless women who rely on this option as a medical procedure–one that is chosen with a heart so heavy it guts those who are tasked with having to make it. But the alternative is worse. In my view, the parents who decide this option is the best for their families are heroes–to their unborn child who would not survive and to themselves for making the most selfless act a parent ever could.

If you don’t believe me, ask.

Ask the women who go in for their anatomy scan and find out their child stopped growing.

Ask the women whose babies’ anomalies add up to more than a human body can tolerate.

Ask the women who contract an illness during the eighth month of pregnancy that threatens to be eventually fatal to the baby.

Ask the women who have multiples in which case one may not be viable while the other one is.

Ask the women who develop severe illness themselves: infections, liver problems, kidney failure.

Ask the women who wanted nothing more than to hold a healthy baby in their arms and are instead asked to make the worst decision of their lives.

If you haven’t yet, ask the men why they support this decision.

Ask them how they would feel if they lost their wife only to watch their baby die shortly after birth.

Ask them how they felt when they had to be the strong one while their wife underwent the most traumatic medical procedure she had yet to face.

Ask them how many times they prayed the baby would just be okay so they wouldn’t have to watch both their wives and their unborn child–their world–suffer.

Ask how many times they cried in secret but knew the sacrifice they made was the best of two horrific choices.

If you haven’t asked these women and men why, do it. I did. I reached out. I met many who faced these scenarios. I not only believe in choice because of my own troubled pregnancy, but because I believe in the humanity of the others I have met.

I don’t think every person must have the same beliefs. I embrace humanity in all forms. Practice the religion you like. Lead the life you believe is righteous. Focus your intentions on yourself instead of on others.

The last time I checked, no one religion was better than another. No one religion was better than living without a religion at all. No one is better at making huge life decisions for ourselves than–well—ourselves. We are all human. Shaming others with sensationalized “facts” shows a lack of empathy so large that all I see is a black hole where compassion should be. I have been shocked by the disregard people have when choosing their words. Whether on Facebook or in a protest line, your words are meaningless until you talk to those who know.

Let’s find a way to truly understand each other. Without the hateful online articles. Without the loudmouth news anchors on cable television. But rather with conversations with each other. Understanding for each other. Knowing that we can all believe differently and still be decent people. And by cultivating our empathy again.