Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Engaging in empathy

  • A demonstrator waits for the start of a protest in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh. AP PHOTO/Matt Rourke

Published: 11/7/2018 12:49:56 PM

Did people vote “yes” on all of the ballot questions? I fear for Question 1. Is Elizabeth Warren voted in for her second Senate term? Most importantly, did more Democrats get elected nationwide to begin to turn the tides of fascism and division towards hope?  

As I write this column a few days in advance of the midterm elections, I am struck by the urgency I feel. This is not the usual feeling about progressive causes and candidates winning. This is about whether or not people will be able to live here in relative safety because of who they are: because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their primary language, their country of origin, their non-Christian religious beliefs, their political leanings or their different abilities, and so on.

Every day, it seems surreal that so many white Americans are participating in hate as some form of entertainment. When I see photos of rallies with men, women and their children dressed in racist or homophobic-message T-shirts, I do a double-take. It can’t be. 

After the Pittsburgh massacre, I was talking with an 88-year old friend of mine. She is black, she has dementia, and she taught music and still plays the piano. When we finished our conversation, she walked over to the piano and played a beautiful version of “We Shall Overcome.” Then she turned to me and said, “We are going to have to do a lot more than overcome.” Indeed.

I was born in Pittsburgh, and both of my birth parents have some connection to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The pain is unbearable from afar, and I cannot imagine what it is like up close. Love and kindness collide with grief as neighbors, Jews from other parts of the country, and people from diverse backgrounds show up for the survivors and the victims’ families.

Why are so many Americans more concerned about some right to own guns than about the results of our gun-crazy culture? We are operating from the perspective of me, me, me. Not community, society, all of us. Me, me, me does not make one happy. It is destructive and devoid of empathy and compassion.

Finland, Norway and Denmark recently topped the list of happiest countries, according to the United Nation’s World Happiness Report. It’s not the long winters in these countries that make people happy. And it’s no coincidence that many of the happiest countries also top the list for safest in the world. The United States? According to the Happiness Report, it’s down four notches from 2017 to no. 18. 

This is our worst ranking since the inception of the index. 

Happier countries spend more time thinking about extending advantages to future generations, and they have solid social support networks. Regulations are embraced as essential elements of social and political constructs. While some people may be wealthy and others poor in the happier countries, they do not approach the perversity of concentrated wealth that we do in the United States. People report valuing the importance of community and society ahead of personal gain. In happier countries, universal health care and basic food and housing are expected. Education is free or affordable.

It feels good to think of others and to engage in empathy. It creates happiness. I have an idea: Between now and the end of the calendar year, donate time or money to a progressive Jewish cause or to a synagogue near you. Reject anti-Semitism as if your life depends on it. Do not assume that your fellow Jews or your Jewish friends and colleagues do not need you. They do. Stand with Jews and make it known that they are not alone. Make a habit of it. 

I donated to Tree of Life synagogue after the massacre, and I identified as someone born in Pittsburgh who stands on the side of love and kindness. A word. An action. A donation. A mitzvah (a good deed). Do it.

Centuries of anti-Semitism in the form of personal attacks, a lack of legal rights, and, to the extreme, genocide, provide us with enough reason to do something about violence against Jews. Consider that racists have cheered on the killer in the days since the massacre. There is no neutral stance. Which side are you on? Empathy and happiness or hate and unhappiness?

J.M. Sorrell is the spokesperson for Noho Pride. She is a feminist first — with a core belief in the intersectionality of social, economic and environmental justice issues.

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