The Power of Empathy

By Diane Oviatt

There are some in this life who would seem to be naturally endowed with the ability to readily empathize with the struggles of others. In fact, my own patriarchal blessing mentions this as a gift worth expanding upon. I am that sappy Mormon mom who weeps when listening to others bear their testimonies, chokes up reading Psalms, and sobs out loud watching “Old Yeller” (I don’t even like dogs.)

I have always loved the beatitudes, especially the “mourn with” and “comfort those” verses. As a pediatric oncology nurse I have mourned with and comforted parents of dying children more times than I can count over the years. And yet, I have come to realize that until my son Ross came out six years ago at age eighteen, and my feet were set on a path I never chose, my understanding of this most Christ-like of attributes was not complete. I am not speaking of the empathy I felt for Ross, though as his mother, his pain was indeed my own.

I did not, and still do not know how it feels to be a gay Mormon, any more than I know what it is like to lose your child to cancer. What I do know intimately is what it feels like to be the MOTHER of a gay child; more specifically, a gay Latter Day Saint child. To yearn for him to feel a “part of” instead of “separate from”, to feel whole, complete and just the way God made him. Over time, as a byproduct of this knowledge, my thoughts have turned to other families like mine, other children like my own, and specifically to their suffering mothers.

I have always had some cognitive dissonance related to what I perceive as the more dogmatic tenets of the gospel, and the built in bigotry toward homosexuals is certainly one of them. I grew up doing musical theatre, so TRULY some of my best friends were gay, including my own brother who came out in his late twenties. Yet, despite having prided myself on my accepting, open- minded approach to life, I now realize that I really did not grasp it until my nuclear family lived it: until I witnessed the suffering of my firstborn son.

To be sure, the injustice of it all had always nagged at my brain and at my heart, and when pressed for an opinion I freely gave it. Thus, I am not one of those people who radically changed their view of homosexuality in the church when it landed in their own back yard. I was more than halfway there already.

What did radically change for me was my ability to empathize, not just with those who faced similar trials, but with anyone who is made to feel “less than”. These children, in particular, now feel like MY children because it happened to my child. Their mothers could be ME because it happened to me.

Though I am still (as are we all) “seeing through a glass darkly” on this issue, I have learned a few things on this journey. One of the more salient lessons for me has been in regards to the inability of some in the church to empathize enough to shift their paradigm. Why are they not as outraged as I over the suicide rates of gay teenagers? Why aren’t they agitating for change, marching in pride parades, sharing their stories?? Oh wait… because they don’t HAVE a story! It hasn’t happened to THEM….

It is a quirk of human nature that until an experience lands squarely in our laps, it is just someone else’s experience. I was not spurred into any kind of action until it became mine to act upon. This realization has moved me to be more patient with my fellow saints when they don’t, for example, immediately embrace the idea of marriage equality by promising to do the flowers for my son’s imagined future gay wedding. I have learned that we must meet each other where we are; to show understanding to my friends who have not yet “arrived”. After all, I was once waiting at the station for someone else to start the engine before my own train went off the track.

Most of us who work to bring about change are spurred to action by a personal connection, usually in the form of a loved one. We are, of course, in awe of the straight allies who freely empathize and act without a nudge. They are brilliant and rare and need to be cloned (or at least canonized). As for the rest of the world-not everyone can be lucky enough to have a gay child, but everyone can be lucky enough to LOVE a gay child.

What I now know for sure is that it is incumbent upon those of us who have tapped into our empathy the hard way and suffered the pain under our own roof to be a voice in what feels, at times, like the wilderness. To stay and to share our stories; to put faces and names to this urgent issue. When those who care about us feel even a smidgeon of empathy; a sliver of a “that could be my child” kind of thinking, then hearts will soften and minds can change. It is our best and brightest hope.

Diane Oviatt –Married to Tom for 31 years in Oakland temple. Raised LDS.  3 children.  Currently serving in Moraga ward primary presidency. Pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s Hospital Oakland for past 32 years.

11 comments for “The Power of Empathy

  1. Yvette
    May 20, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Diane….that was beautifully said! Thank you for that declaration of hope!

  2. Wendy Montgomery
    May 20, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Beautiful article, Diane! You expressed my thoughts and feelings perfectly. We need to teach empathy more in church. We teach charity constantly, but how can we have charity without empathy? Thank you for writing this!

  3. Meg Abhau
    May 20, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    This is so perfectly said. Thank you for this.

  4. Jeff Thompson
    May 20, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Good Stuff…. eyes/hearts opened even wider I hope

  5. Jan
    May 20, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Thank you for allowing me a peek into your personal journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn love for everyone and judgement towards no one.

  6. Anissa
    May 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am a straight ally, not because I had a gay loved one but because people like you have been sharing their stories! And since I became an ally I now have a family member who is going through what you have been through. I was able to be there for them in the way they needed, again, because people like you were brave and spoke up! Thank you and to everyone else willing to put their stories out there for all of us to stretch and grow in true empathy.

  7. Mary Ann
    May 20, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Wonderfully written, Diane! I remember you wanting a son named Ross before even his sister was born. He’s everything that I hope my boys grow up to be, and you are a magnificent example for me even now, thirty years after I splattered paint on the wall of your apartment while making 80’s sweatshirts. Thank you for being a pioneer.

    • Diane Oviatt
      May 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

      Thanks everyone. And Mary Ann, my beehive Mary Ann?? Blast from the past!

      • Mary Ann
        May 21, 2013 at 10:18 am

        Yes! I became Linda’s visiting teacher in the Berkeley Ward after I got married and she’s kept me up on the stake’s special Sunday School meetings and Salt Lake Tribune article and so on. Well done!

  8. Kathleen Jensen
    May 22, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Beautifully written, Diane. We are all so privileged to hear your story. And I didn’t know you did musical theater!

  9. Gina
    October 18, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Diane, that was beautiful and courageous. As a mother, I feel empathy is the hardest to teach children. I hope that more of this community speaks up at church so we can share & learn in such dialogue. Some of my kids are so empathetic to this issue that this is one of the issues they bring up that has challenged their testimony of the church. Prop 8 was a hot topic in my home. I did not work for it not did I vote for it. My kids felt the same way & had difficulty understanding why members kept trying to get them involved. We are LGBT sympathizers. I continually have to have such conversations with my kids so they know you can be gay & sympathize with the gay community & still have a testimony. Mary Ann, I remember that I was the one that splattered the paint on Diane’s wall! Haha!

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