Building the Empathy Superhighway

By Carla Goldstein, co-founder Omega Women’s Leadership Center

“You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.”
–Michael Franti

The Means Matters

As a child of the sixties I was practically born marching. I was one of those babies in a stroller with a slogan sign around it, and as I grew up my feet replaced the wheels. I have marched as a group of two and in a sea of hundreds of thousands. Regardless of the demonstration size, being with others shouting in unison for what I believed in always left me with feelings of hope and strength. I thought that if enough of us screamed long enough we could be the tipping point that created peace and equality in the world.

The first hint I had that screaming at my opponent might not be the most skillful way to bring about change, and could even thwart it, was in the early 90s when I was a student living in Buffalo, New York. There was a large influx of anti-choice demonstrators that came every weekend to protest outside a women’s health center. One day several of us decided to counter demonstrate to provide support to women who had to pass a hostile gauntlet of anti-choice insults before entering the health center’s front door.

Raw rage pulsed through my body as the mostly older men stood near the entrance thrusting posters with images of fetuses towards the women trying to get inside. We stood nearby shouting at the top of our lungs, “go home” and “leave us alone.” They shouted back that we were “murderers” and “going to hell.” Empathy for each other’s viewpoint was nowhere in sight.

As our dueling choruses reached a fevered pitch, someone from inside the health center came to ask us to quiet down because our noise level was frightening patients. We were surprised by the request. If we quieted down we would defeat our purpose of standing up to anti-choice aggression and if we continued shouting we were creating the same effect as the hostile gauntlet we came to oppose.

On that afternoon I had the faint realization that if our voices were adding to a hostile environment for even one woman inside the health center then our “means” were out of alignment with our end goal. It would take another decade of incidents like this before I became committed to finding another way to express my activism that was grounded in empathy and compassion for all sides and that recognized the humanity in everyone.

A pivotal moment came in 2005, at the Omega Institute’s Women and Power conference. Leaders from both sides of the choice issue came as a group to share what they had learned from their effort to find mutual understanding after the 1994 Brookline health center shootings had left them all horrified by the violence. With the help of The Public Conversations Project (PCP), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people reach across divides, they agreed to meet regularly for a period of time. The hope was that by establishing real relationships with each other their comments in the press would become less dehumanizing, which might help shift the public climate and reduce the violence surrounding the choice issue.

They told of how breaking bread together and exploring the issues in an atmosphere of trust created deep bonds, empathy, and love for each other. They did not change their minds on the issue of choice (the goal was not to change minds), and in fact, the dialogue ultimately reinforced their original viewpoints. What did change, however, was their means of expressing their views to each other and in the news media, which in turn made the cultural debate less violent than it had been.

Many in the conference audience were greatly moved by their story and expressed gratification for being able to witness what they felt was an important step forward into difficult and unchartered territory of peacemaking. Others concluded that enemies breaking bread together was nothing new and they expressed frustration at the lack of tangible progress. They summed up their response by saying “so what?”

While the two opposing groups’ newfound respect for each other did not solve the immediate public policy impasse, their dialogue did lay down new tracks for an important human-based infrastructure necessary for building a society that is more, as PCP’s mission statement says, “inclusive, empathetic and collaborative.”

While transportation superhighways helped human beings connect through travel and the internet superhighway helped us connect through information, the next frontier is an empathy superhighway that helps us connect through the heart. By creating a global network of people capable of feeling the reality of others we can discover the creative ways to reconcile our differences, heal past traumas, and build a new way of being together.

As Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who served on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says in her book, A Human Being Died That Night, says of the quality of empathy:

The power of human connectedness, of identification with the other as ‘bone of my bone’ through the sheer fact of his being human, draws us to ‘rescue’ others in pain, almost as if this were a learned response embedded deep in our genetic and evolutionary past. We cannot help it. We are induced to empathy because there is something in the other that is felt to be part of the self, and something in the self that is felt to belong to the other

If we can develop stronger human capacity for empathy we will want to take care of each other and the earth. We will want to share the food we have and take care of all the world’s children. We will want to honor the wisdom in those who have lived long lives and hold the grief with those who have lost loved ones. We will not want anyone to experience the devastation of war and the fear of violence. We will deepen our understanding of what it means to be both unique individual beings and parts of a unified organism.

And just as the global reach of our transcontinental rail system wasn’t apparent when the first wooden tracks were laid in Germany to move ore, nor could we imagine the capacity to share information instantaneously around the world via the internet when the first communications cable was laid across the ocean, it makes sense that some came away from the Public Conversations Project dialogue on choice not seeing the promise of the leaders’ dialogue. Their response of “so what,” may be because we are in the pioneering days of creating this empathy superhighway and its ultimate scope and impact are not yet in view.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine what it will be like when we have developed a new way of relating to each other from a place of empathy and an understanding of our ultimate unity. But if we can build and link enough empathetic hearts, like the laying of rail road tracks or connecting servers of the internet, perhaps we can build a human mechanism for reconciling our deepest disagreements and bringing forth our greatest hopes for humanity.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi

Below is an ongoing exercise for bringing more balanced attention to the means and the ends in our activism:

Recognizing that all of our actions have impact, we work to bring alignment between our dreams for peace and our actions for peace, our dreams for equality and our actions for equality, our dreams for compassion and our actions for compassion.

At the end of each day spend a few minutes reflecting (keeping a journal helps) on whether your means and ends have been in alignment on this day. Ask yourself the following questions, “Today, has my activism led me to be unkind, violent, dishonest, manipulative, unfair, or disempowering? Today, how could I have brought greater alignment between values of peace, justice, compassion, and love and my actions for peace, justice, compassion, and love? Did I do anything today that felt effective or satisfying because I brought more balance between the means and ends of my activism?

Over time, this practice of bringing awareness to the relationship between your means and ends should help you bring more compassion and love into your activism, thus bringing more compassion and love into the world.

This article originally appeared at:

Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega’s Director of External Affairs and Director of The Women’s Institute at Omega. Carla is an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health and social justice. As part of Omega’s Faculty, Carla teaches “Spiritual Activism,” a workshop designed to help people develop their activism in creative ways that align with their values and lives.