The Empathy Mask

When we look around us today, we see a country torn by increasing polarization—politically, socially, and even personally—as our lives are unraveled by this pandemic.  From whether the pandemic was actually a plandemic to the controversy about masks and social distancing, to the conversation around race and privilege, whether or not to defund the police, or re-open schools in a few weeks.  Strong emotions on both sides stem from fear, anger, and defensiveness.


Polarization happens when people favor binary (either/or) thinking and make their preferred values absolute rather than recognizing them as personal and part of a larger continuum.  It also happens when uncertainty (something that is reasonable considering all the variables right now) is viewed as a mark of weakness.  When we indulge in motivated reasoning—only looking for evidence that supports our side—or assume that our opponent is motivated by bad faith, we promote polarization.


But ultimately polarization can only thrive where there is a lack of empathy.


Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes.  Empathy is hard-wired through nerve cells in our brain that are referred to as “mirror neurons”.  These cells light up or get activated when we observe someone else’s pain.  
When we become mothers our capacity for empathy is multiplied through changes in the brain (more on maternal brain changes soon!).  These changes begin during pregnancy when a sixth sense about our baby’s well-being is developing right along with our baby.  It’s that same sense that tells us our baby is waking across the house even before s/he cries.  
Empathy is the natural cure for polarization because it is the great connector.
When we lose the capacity to understand or feel someone else’s experience, it becomes very easy to “otherize” that person, whether it’s a family member, a colleague, or a social, political, or religious organization.  
So we are faced with a real wake up call right now.
If we want to evolve as a culture, a country, and a human family, we must grow and develop our empathy.  As mamas, we get opportunities each and every day to practice this with our children.  
But what if we extend this outward to our partners, our neighbors, our communities, etc?  
The interesting thing is that what sparked the social upheaval we are seeing now was empathy.  
We watched as a police officer Derek Chauvin held down George Floyd, a black man, Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck until he took his last breath.  Floyd was handcuffed and unarmed, and his cries of “I can’t breathe” were ignored as other police officers watched (apparently with zero empathy) and did nothing to stop him.

Empathetic onlookers pleaded with the officer to stop but were ignored.  The video brought to light an ongoing and chronic problem within our police and criminal justice system.  

And it incited empathy in the hearts of people all over the world.  On a global level, people risked contracting the virus to gather in large groups in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. These protests magnified the controversy around masks and social distancing as well as incited important but challenging conversations around race, privilege, and white supremacy.  
But let’s focus on just one area of polarization—masks and social distancing.
It would be simple if our masks were for our own protection.  Then we could say "to each their own", and agree that everyone has a right to take on the level of risk they feel comfortable with. 
The sticky part is that, unless you are a healthcare provider who is wearing an N95 mask, your mask is not for your own protection but for those around you.  So when you wear a mask you are saying that you care for the lives of those you come in contact with. 

What we do know about Covid-19 is that it disproportionately affects black Americans (who are 5x more likely to die from it) as well as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions (which also disproportionately affect black people). 


I can see both sides of the mask issue.  


Personally, I hate wearing a mask.  


It’s hot, uncomfortable, stifles my expression, and certainly does feel like an infringement on my personal freedom.  When I am at a birth and have to wear one for an extended period of time, I start to feel dizzy and develop a headache.  It's not healthy to wear a mask on a regular basis.


On the other hand,  I understand that by wearing a mask I am protecting my pregnant clients and their babies.  I am expressing my allyship with black folks and in essence saying to them, “your life matters to me”.  I wear a mask to express my empathy toward our shared humanity.


How interesting that at a time when we are so polarized, this virus is calling us to build our capacity for empathy by thinking of how the simple action of wearing a mask in a public space and maintaining some degree of physical distance will affect those around us. 


It’s a big shift in a culture that promotes rugged individualism to say,


“Hey we need to think about the collective here.”  


I don’t know whether this was a naturally occurring virus, a plandemic, or a scamdemic, but what I do know is that however it came into this world, it is REAL, it kills, and it is going to take all of us working together to overcome it.  


This is an opportunity for us to expand our worldview from myopic isolationism to inclusive collectivism, and in doing so acknowledge the interconnectedness of all people and the planet.


As mothers, we are natural leaders.  We are the first teachers of the next generation.  These times are demanding that we teach our children about empathy.


Regardless of what color you are, what political party you ascribe to, or what religion you belong to, we are all human.  We all have a need for safety.  


So take some deep breaths and put on your empathy mask before you step into that public space.  When you do so, you’re saying,


“Hey, I see you and your life matters.”


And if it feels too stifling to wear a mask today, then take care of you and avoid situations where you need one.


Yes, it’s uncomfortable--even dizzying at times--but just like birth, we have to be in the discomfort to get to the ecstasy that is on the other side.

1 comment

Randy B

I feel, that, empathy is a bridge we may create with another individual, whose set of circumstances may vary, to whatever degree, from our set of circumstances, and all other’s special-case set of circumstances. Along with empathy, there is the knowledge base we all access and process to winnow out truth and fact, that, will aid us in making decisions, that, are best for the individual, and others set of special-case circumstances. The lack of finding common ground of set of truths, may be the main cause of polarization, along with a lack of empathy. I dunno.

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