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Empathy without Action is the Coward's Cloak (Most of us Wear)

Yesterday I was going through a Wendy’s drive-thru while listening to a Ukrainian man on the radio, desperate to find his wife amid the current invasion from Russia.

He stayed back to fight and now has no idea if she’s alive. The last text he received from her was, “We are being bombed.” That was a month ago.

And there I was, excited over an egg croissant and hot coffee, wondering if I could scrounge together enough loose coins in my mom-van to cover it.

I have a tendency to put my ears on auto-pilot and let the news blur into the background without letting it land in my gut. As the man continued to talk in his thick accent, his words finally stepped forward and reached my self-absorbed brain.

The war is far away. Not there in the Wendy’s drive-thru. My family is safe, but someone just like me is holding her head in her hands, praying desperately for God to protect her family.

In Ukraine.

In Afghanistan.

Right down the street from me in Ohio.

Ignoring and avoiding are easy ways to protect myself from feeling hopeless. I can change the channel. I can binge-watch Ted Lasso. (And, believe me, I do.) But the distractions are starting to chip away at my sanity. They are cheap escapes that close the door to my spirit and dampen my ability to feel.

Don’t get me wrong, feeling is freaking difficult. It’s hard to lie in bed at night and wonder about all the suffering that exists in that moment while I hear the sweet snores of my husband and dogs, my essential oil diffuser soothing my first-world nerves with lavender.

I want to hear the stories and let them hurt. I want to pause and absorb the fact that wives, daughters, and mothers just like me are enduring trauma. I want to invite their pain in and let it take root, so I can stop plugging my ears and pretending it doesn’t exist.

It exists. And yet, I drive up to the second window at Wendy's, pay for my food through wet eyes, and devour my food.

Unscathed, really, by the news. Saddened, but not moved to any real action. Soon the calendar reminders of my day start beeping on my phone, rushing in like a tide to carry my thoughts away from the news story that might ground me in something bigger than me.

The dichotomy between how amazing life can be for some and how horrifying life can be for others twists and turns inside of me at times. And I truly have no answers for this, aside from speaking my truth out loud.

And the truth is: It. Sucks.

It sucks that when one person is suffering the whole world can’t–won’t– stop what they’re doing, gather together, and fix it. We exhale loudly at the news, shake our heads, and move on.

We pull up to the second window at Wendy’s, and pay for our food through wet eyes.

And we devour the food.

Because we’re not affected, really.

We dodge metaphoric bullets every day in our bubbles of protection. But we’re all going to be faced with obstacles that freeze us in our tracks, and we’ll wish the world would stop what they’re doing, gather together, and help fix it.

We aren’t armed to hear or see others’ suffering, and feel it as our own. We don’t look at the child hiding out underground in Ukraine with tears rolling down her face and think to run to go help her as if she were our own.

We clutch our own children tighter, thanking God for mercy, as if God weren’t holding his own head in his hands, sobbing at the tragedy.

The problem for me is I do feel the pain, but this empathy should not be congratulated since I do have the ears to hear, yet I do nothing to respond. More commendable are those who don’t feel it, and have the same response.

Empathy without action is a waste. It becomes nothing more than weak sorrow that has no courage.

Oh, sure, I do the typical acts of donating money, serving at volunteer projects, and taking the time to look people experiencing homelessness in the eye.

I tell myself I’m doing what I can.

And that’s a lie.

Yes, I do those things, but I swallow down the urge to help in a way that matters. To storm the streets. To scoop up the children. To start revolutions that let the good people take the power back.

To link arms with other pissed-off mama bears and demand better from the world for our children.

I make myself smaller and weaker to preserve myself for my own circle of people who need me. This is what we all do, right?

I talk myself out of feeling it. I change the channel, I write the article about it, but I choke down the fiery empathy it stirs in me, so I can be undisturbed and present in my own life.

But it’s a dark, persistent cloud in my brain full of shame and disappointment in myself as I pull up to the second window at Wendy’s and pay for my food through wet eyes.

And devour the food.


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