On Empathy

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Photo Credit- Olivia Harris/Reuters http://www.businessinsider.com/afp-record-137000-refugees-migrants-crossed-mediterranean-this-year-2015-7?IR=T

There I was, sitting on the cold linoleum floor of a church on Staten Island, crying until my eyes ached. I was 14 years old, on a mission trip to NYC with my church youth group. While I tend to be very critical of mission trips (a story for another post), this week serving in the city drastically changed my young perception of the world around me. That day, I realized for the first time the extent to which I was writing off the homeless and hungry I saw every day in the city. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but something about them was not fully human in my eyes. My task for the day at a local food pantry was to work down the line of people waiting for food, and ask each individual his or her name. I had seen these people sleeping on benches and pushing shopping carts full of belongings, but never looked them in the eyes to fully face their struggles and humanity. But that day, as I scribbled down their names on the list and held simple conversations, I recognized that I had more in common with these neighbors than I realized. My 14 year old self had not connected that each person had stories, mothers, dreams, favorite foods and embarrassing stories to laugh about, just like me. Reflecting later that night with my youth group, I was overwhelmed with shame. Not just shame from treating these people so coldly in the past, but shame from not even realizing what I was doing.  To say this realization rocked my teenage world is an understatement, but it’s also an overstatement to think that I have dutifully carried this empathy with me through my life so far.

This time around in New York City, it’s still hard to look into the eyes of the homeless men and women begging for change on the subway or sleeping on the church steps outside of my dorm. It’s hard to know just what to do in the face of this form of suffering, but especially so as I power walk my way across town to help the Presbyterian Ministry advocate to the United Nations for the Human Rights of people across the world.

The prevailing problem I see day to day at my internship around the UN is this constant struggle to put a face to the names of each refugee debated over, hungry child, and casualty of war. If it’s hard to recognize the humanity of a man sleeping at your feet- how much more difficult is it to feel true empathy for a woman you will never meet in a situation you can’t imagine on the other side of the world? But those who advocate for peace and justice try and yank us privileged few out of our well-constructed fortresses of comfort to look into the faces of those who have so much less.

Empathy can be emotionally exhausting. There’s a point when the statistics just turn into numbers punched into a report about casualties on the Mediterranean or the number of malnourished children in South Sudan. But there are those who work hard in UN agencies and NGOs to bring in real refugees to speak in person, and document in-depth the personal struggles of those experiencing humanitarian crisis first hand. It was impossible not to be moved by the video we watched in the General Assembly about a woman negotiating with ISIL terrorists to bring home kidnapped girls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO1r0s2mw1k, or the Palestinian refugees who shared their experiences of living entire lifetimes with an uncertain future. Without seeking out these personal stories, human lives just turn into numbers on a page or another sad face in a news report.

I read an interesting BBC report report on empathy this morning. We are hardwired as humans to feel compassion for others, but in our busy lives these feelings are easy to bury in the face of so much suffering. If you are reading this, you have SO much power. The power to click the tiny red x and stop reading at this very moment. The power to never give a glance to the world around but keep a firm focus on the dinner plans and online shopping that snuggle comfortably in the tabs at the top of the screen. But I encourage you to seek out news reports and focus on one face or a name or a number and imaging just for a moment that person’s last birthday or the last time they hugged their mother.

I apologize that this is not a post with a specific action plan. I don’t have a letter to sign or a cause to give a dollar to, this is rather a call to empathy. To shake yourself a little harder when you hear a news report that makes you shudder and want to look away. The cause may be different for every person- but listen to that discomfort and allow someone else’s pain a little time to sink in

It’s hard to feel empathy when you also feel powerless to help, but that very empathy is always the first necessary step to finding how you can use your many blessings to bring even one person back from the edge of tragedy. Be that the tragedy of a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, another day of walking on an empty stomach in South Sudan, or another night sleeping on the steps of a church at the corner of 31st and Broadway.

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Consent: You’re making it Acca-Awkward

Say it with me now everybody! “Yes means yes! No means no! Affirmative consent is sexy!”

Is everyone clear? Yes? No? Really? Because I’m confused as hell. Especially after watching the most recent Pitch Perfect 2 Trailer.

I saved you some time and skipped to the end. As a college student myself, I was psyched out of my mind for the sassy and hilarious ladies of Pitch Perfect to head off to school. No moms! No dads! No rules! College! And of course, everyone’s waiting to see what comes of the hilarious sexual tension between Bumper and Fat Amy. This is a comedy. So when Bumper asked Fat Amy for “sex later” we all knew we were in for a laugh…but what was that? A No with a wink? A 100% No, with another wink? Clearly, Fat Amy missed our little chant at the beginning of this post.

By now, we’ve all heard how important it is for No to really mean No. Every woman I know has been in a situation where, yes its been fun chatting/drinking/making out with you but, no. I really don’t want any more than that right now. And every woman I know has then tried to be coerced into something more, because that’s how it works in the movies right? The woman turns to leave but gets pulled back and swept up in a dramatic kiss and suddenly clothes are on the floor and everyone is happy. You know you want it (hey hey hey). The problem is, a whole lot of girls don’t want it. And a whole lot of rapes happen on college campuses.

Bumper’s apparent confusion in this scene reminds me a lot of this article I read in The Atlantic earlier this year on why a college student abandoned California’s Affirmative Consent Law. Check it out —-> http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/why-a-college-student-abandoned-affirmative-consent/381650/

California’s mandate that waiting for a “No” when going to the next level sexually is not enough, but a “Yes,” (not a shrug or a pause) must be stated beforehand has brought a good deal of controversy. What the young man is trying to say in his open letter denouncing the effectiveness of affirmative consent is that “Yes means Yes” is not so simple on college campuses where “playing hard to get” and adding confusion is part of “the game” where girls sometimes want much more than they let on.

The problem here, and the problem that the Anonymous California student and Bumper have run into is (feminist goddesses please dont smite me yet), some partners do want it. They really do. Some partners actually mean Yes when they say No. And this is creating some very, very dangerous social norms.

Some women really do have the idea that their partner should assume they really want more than they’re letting on. This type of behavior, and the assumption that it is normal, is putting the person asking for consent in a pretty tight spot. Do I assume shes lying and give her what she wants, or believe she doesn’t want it and risk missing out on some fun? Are the women perpetrating this confusion, in my opinion, really, really stupid? Yes. To them, “art of convincing” and pushing the limits is romantic. And romantic it may indeed be until the person they are with has the absolute worst intentions in mind.

Not saying that Bumper is a great guy, but he is asking for consent. Bravo. Straight up. Do you want to have sex later. And Fat Amy responds with a whole garble of confusion that we really don’t need right now. For rape culture on campuses to change, it is absolutely necessary for people to be honest about what they want and are comfortable with. Confusion leaves too much room for disaster.

The final scene from the Pitch Perfect II trailer just sounded WAY too much like Rush Limbaugh’s “No means yes if you know how to spot it.”  Bumper sure doesn’t know how to spot it here, and I’m not sure I do either. Lets cut the crap Fat Amy. A No doesn’t mean yes if she winks. A No STILL doesn’t mean yes if she winks when you ask her again. And if that means Fat Amy and Bumper don’t get what they want at the end of the night- so be it. She needs to work on her communication skills. As for Bumper, in the words of Amanda Taub, “what you lose in nights of passion, you make up for in nights of not being a rapist.” If there’s any confusion, keep the pants on.

Honestly, I’m really hoping that something will happen in Pitch Perfect 2 to redeem this scene, because lord knows “When I’m Gone” is still stuck in my head. But until then, can we please stop romanticizing and joking about the one-in-a-hundred times when a No has really meant Yes?  It’s creating a culture where destructive mind games are the norm, and that’s not only acca-awkward, it’s dangerous.