Listening to Women, Learning Empathy

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Somehow this Rothko captures the mood.

I am not writing this to advertise myself as some wonderful “woke” guy who really gets all of the indignities and awfulness that women suffer. My hope here is to share my path to at least a glimmer of empathy in the hope that it will help and inform other well-meaning men and boys to also be understanding and better.

So I’m writing about me, but it isn’t about me, I’m just trying to set the stage.

First, two decades ago, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was the big news I worked in a small office with two women. When we began discussing current affairs I made the argument that perhaps Ms. Lewinsky was just a tiny bit responsible for what had happened.

My colleagues rounded on me. They adamantly stated that this was a situation between a powerful man and a powerless woman, it was not her fault. I dropped my argument because a light went off in my head – both of my colleagues had been in a comparable situation!


And if that were true, it means that many – most – women have also been in a comparable situation. This meant that most women had been ensnared in a fraught, sexualized, if not sexual, relationship with a more powerful man.

This is on top of the constant  harassment and judgment to which women are also subject. I haven’t surveyed women I know to find out how true this is. But between listening to my wife and just paying attention – it’s pretty clear how pervasive these situations are. Women worry about situations to which I would not give a second thought (such as whether an Uber ride in a strange city could become an assault.)

This was the beginning of a great sympathy towards women. I don’t think I was ever a bad guy, I was nice and courteous. But this first realization helped me develop a sense of compassion about what women have to go through – but not empathy, I couldn’t claim to truly grasp their experience.

Now, with the questions around Kavanaugh’s behavior – his alleged attempted rape – my sympathy has deepened. Reading Caitlin Flanagan’s article on a similar incident that happened to her as a teenager is a reminder that huge numbers of women have had a similar experience of physical assault. Even more women were in bad situations that could have become an assault, but that they somehow evaded. Let’s be very clear, that still leaves a scar. The fact that rape or assault did not occur does not mean that nothing happened or that the experience was not terrible and frightening.

Anyone who thinks that the outpouring of women supporting Dr. Ford is cynical politics is fooling themselves. They believe her because they have been there.

A Mile in Another’s Shoes
Sympathy is generally understood as compassion towards, while empathy is understanding another’s situation – putting yourself in their shoes. Empathy is harder. Science fiction writer Jonathan Scalzi, in an epic blog post wrote that if life were a video game: “‘Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

This straight white male does not always understand what those unlike myself have to go through. But I’m trying. To show how I got there, I need to talk about myself a little.

A Glimmer of Empathy
When I was a kid I was bullied, a lot. I was an awkward, strange, nerdy kid. This happened at school, in my neighborhood, (oddly) at Hebrew school, even at (can you imagine) a summer program for gifted and talented kids. That’s right, I was so nerdy that other nerds picked on me. I was insulted and taunted. I was pushed around.

I was never really beaten up. I took steps to get out when the situation got threatening. It was often humiliating. But I was weak and uncoordinated. Attempts at violence were not going to go well for me. On TV, the victim slugs the bully in the face. And it turns out the bully was just a coward. Maybe so, but I’m not sure it would have worked out so well. In my experience, the bully was just looking for an excuse. Also, lots of times the bully had a bunch of friends. There was no honor, they would have piled on and beaten the crap out of me.

I have a great life now. None of this should matter. But I can still get mad about these incidents from three or four decades ago – in an instant. I still wake up at night with elaborate revenge fantasies.

But this is not about me. 

What I dealt with was chump change, small potatoes compared to an attempted rape. Thinking about my own open wound, made me realize just how massive the hurt that must be left by a sexual assault.

I don’t want to equate my being pushed around at the playground with an attempted rape. It is not, not even close.

Update – A wise friend wrote to me:

I’d add here a caution of false equivalency. You left the playground/summer school–women must be vigilant wherever they are, every moment of their lives. The threat never stops. One is a fixed incident in time and space and the other is persistent through time and space. 

So if I consider my still festering anger and pain, and then try to imagine it extended many orders of magnitude into multiple dimensions, then maybe I have glimpsed just a shadow of what most women are carrying with them. The fact that despite these deep wounds, women carry on – raise kids, work jobs, write articles and PhD dissertations – is simply amazing.

That is the beginning of empathy.

Try it and extend it to everyone – people of color, LGBTQ, and the disabled.

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