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.

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