I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because I met a woman named Hope who taught me how to love. And I think her example in the world made me want to light my hair on fire and shout about what she and her life was experiencing as an injustice. The empathy that I learned from a woman named Esperance in the Democratic Republic of Congo was entirely different from what I actually thought empathy was. Meeting Esperance in the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of those ebenezers in my life that showed me what I didn’t know, as opposed to what I did know. Meeting Esperance showed me my lack of a definition of empathy.
War at that time was not new to me. I had been living in and out of conflict zones doing community development with my husband, and then later on, with my entire family, for pretty close to two decades by then. Yet, even though war wasn’t new to me, Esperance’s response with courage was new to me. And Esperance’s suffering was not what impressed me. It was her response to her suffering that changed my perspective. And that required me to figure out what was the difference.
I had three pretty high functioning responses to relating to people up to that point. My first reach would be sympathy. I would look for a quick fix. I’d encounter someone else’s suffering, such as Esperance, and I would feel the tension. I would let myself feel the tension and then I would look for a way out of it. And it usually, because I was sophisticated and very Christian, I would say something nice, say something culturally acceptable. It kind of equates to sending flowers or writing a card. Sympathy says: “I really care about you right now, I just don’t care to know about what’s going on in your life, it hurts too much.” It keeps the sufferer at an arm’s length. Yet, at the same time, alleviates my own guilt. That’s a total disconnect there. You can’t solve the world’s problems with sympathy, it’s not going to work.
Then, if that didn’t work, I would reach for super high functioning apathy. And a lot of times, apathy isn’t what we think it is either. Apathy is camouflaged for indifference. It looks a lot like “I know a lot.” It reads, it studies, it makes educated guesses at what problems are, but it still keeps the sufferer at arm’s length. It says something like: “I know what’s going on here, I just really don’t care because the suffering’s too much.”
Then if sympathy wasn’t working–the cultural quick fix wasn’t working for me–and if the apathy wasn’t working–this kind of high functioning camouflage of my indifference–I would reach for the ultimate bomb, and that was antipathy. It looks a lot like protest. It looks a lot like I’m angry and I’m justified. The etymology of antipathy is anti-feeling or opposed feeling, which means you are opposed to feeling into the experience of another person. Yet you can still be outraged.
When the antipathy says”Look I don’t know and I don’t care, just get out of my way I got something to say,” actually, if we analyze, that antipathy ends up being just self-righteousness getting loud.
So those three things: sympathy, apathy, and antipathy can fake their way into looking like passion, they can fake their way into looking like compassion and I use myself as Exhibit A. I was rolling around in those three responses until I actually met a woman that taught me what empathy is. And empathy looks like this. It looks like the journey from disconnecting to connecting. It looks like em pesos, not with passion but in passion. It is a mutual seeing of another person, a leaning into, instead of away from. Listening into instead of listening at. It’s my willingness to decenter myself and center the other person in knowing them, in caring about them, and then letting those two things, my knowing and my caring, inform all of the actions, that I take towards that person. All of my actions towards that person are informed by both knowing them and caring for them.
So, what ultimately happened was I met Esperance and she told me her story, and I let myself hear it. It sounded like a 45-year-old woman, which was my age at the time, with four children being forced to flee her home in one of the world’s worst conflicts on the planet. She watched her husband being shot and killed. She was then brutally raped and left for dead in the forest. And she was found by women counselors who were trained by their churches to go into the Virunga National Forest and seek out women who were having this experience. She was found by them. She was clothed. She was cleaned. She was taken to a clinic where she received one month of rape treatment. And they never left her. They stayed with her. They stayed with her for the nine months that it took to bring her child to birth. And then they stayed with her for the rest of the time it took for her to finish her counselor training. She wanted her suffering response to be helpful to women that had experienced what she experienced. In order for her to be able to do that, she had to confront the perpetrators. She had to make peace with them and with her experience. And that was in passion. She took all of her sufferings and translated it into the actual change of her country.
Had she chosen sympathy or apathy or antipathy as her primary response to her own suffering, none of the good that she had done for the last five years would have been half as effective, including in my own life. So, I look to Esperance as the one who gave me my mandate. She asked me to tell her story. When we finished, I was writing an article for The Daily Beast on Mother’s Day in a War Zone. And I wanted her full-throated permission to tell her story. It took quite a while. She was sitting with her pastor and talking through what it meant to tell her story of violence. And by the end of their time together, she got a little frustrated. She had him flip over the consent form and write in bold capital letters–she’s preliterate, so she wasn’t able to write this herself. She had her pastor write “TELL THE WORLD MY STORY” and then the way she signed it was with her thumbprint. Her entire identity and all the goods and services and her ability to make her voice known in her government, to vote politically, were all wrapped up in her thumbprint. She gave me her most precious biometric identifier as she stamped it underneath those words.
I knew that something had changed for me, that I had exchanged making myself the center of telling someone else’s story to center her story for the sake of her story. And Esperance’s thumbprint became my mandate and because the problem of gender-based violence, including human trafficking, is an enormous epidemic on our planet, it called for a big response.
Listen to the rest of the story on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast #198.