Empathy Can Backfire

I spend a lot of my day championing empathy. At the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity and faith, where we at The Marin Foundation operate, I frequently hear myself saying things like,

“Just imagine having the body of someone who’s not your gender. That’s what your friend may likely be experiencing.”


“You didn’t come to peace with your sexual orientation overnight, so your parents will probably need the same kind of space to process this new reality.”


“Your husband grew up hearing this promising narrative that marrying a woman would cure his unwanted same-sex attraction. You have every right to feel hurt and deceived--and so does he.”

It sounds trite, but empathy really is the cornerstone of fruitful conversation. In practicing empathy, you take the hurt, fear and anger of the other seriously. You take a risk also. Empathy, in the context of what is often termed a “culture war,” can feel like you’re lowering your defenses and ceding ground. You stop seeing the other as the enemy and start seeing them as a fellow human. Empathy restores humanity.

But this blog post isn’t about the merits of empathy.

Empathy can backfire. It can have the unintended, reverse effect of being unhelpful, disconnecting and dehumanizing. This is misguided empathy, as we teach in the Culture War Curriculum:

Often our best intentions of trying to connect cause us to say things that minimize or trivialize what makes the other person different. This tends to have the opposite effect of what we intended (i.e., it makes people feel less heard and understood). This is especially problematic when someone from the majority diminishes the experiences of someone from the minority.

Some examples:

  • “Your desire to sleep with other men is no different from my temptation to cheat on my wife.” Comparing a same-sex relationship to whatever other actions one finds objectionable might come from a place of genuinely wanting to relate or be consistent in one’s ethical code, but those comparisons tend to overlook the ways lesbian, gay and bisexual experience is unique. Not to mention, it reduces that individuals orientation down to sex. In general, using your knowledge of LGBTQ issues to understand an LGBTQ individual is dangerous because your knowledge may be wrong or reductive of this person's experience.


  • “I know what you’re going through. I questioned my faith when my son came out to me too.” I’ve written previously about the experience of parents in the wake of a child coming out as LGBTQ. Yes, many parents do describe it as a sort of grief process, but no one experience is prescriptive. Emotional highs and lows, questions of faith, relationship journeys all differ widely between families. As helpful as it is to connect with other parents of LGBTQ children, there isn’t any blueprint for finding peace.

It’s incredibly important to be able to recognize that people react to experiences with the same fears, insecurities, hopes and desires as we do. That’s empathy. But it’s equally important that we recognize and respect that those reactions and experiences are, on the whole, entirely unique to them. It’s not helpful to compare.

In these misguided attempts to empathize, I think we make the mistake of trying to understand and address the issue more than the individual affected by it. We risk making a parody of the other when we stop seeing them as individuals and instead project our own understanding of the issue onto their story.

It may be well-intentioned. It may ultimately lead to deeper connection or understanding. But in the end, it’s a twisted form of empathy that seeks to reinforce one’s own perspective, not learn from the other’s.


Note: This post originally appeared on Love is an Orientation here.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Urgency of Opposing Inequality

“I must confess I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

These are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., excerpted from his Letter from Birmingham Jail and quoted at the beginning of every one of our bi-weekly gatherings here at The Marin Foundation. It’s actually where we get the name, “Living in the Tension.”

I like to think that I know all about tension. Most days I’m engaged in heavy conversation about faith and sexuality. My colleagues and I here at The Marin Foundation often joke about what we tell strangers asking what we do for a living when we’re off the clock and feeling particularly weary. “I work for a small nonprofit in Chicago,” we’ll say.

This weekend I was reminded of how Dr. King, our model for peaceful, constructive engagement, faced enormous tension and opposition with an even greater amount of energy and conviction. For those of you who have not yet seen the film Selma, go. I sat in awe and often with tears watching the depiction this great preacher from Atlanta opposing racial inequality with what the character called “a massive demonstration of our moral certainty.” Here’s a clip to give you a sense of the weight of this film:

There’s an urgency to the call for justice in this scene. There’s an urgency in Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail, addressed to mostly white, moderate clergymen who had urged him to tone down his efforts. To wait. As he writes,

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I’m inspired by Dr. King’s tenacity and impatience in the face of complacency. We need that spirit of urgency today, whether it’s securing equal treatment for the black community, the LGBTQ community, or any other marginalized group.


Note: This post originally appeared at Love is an Orientation here.


Christmas is the Perfect Time to Protest. No, Really.

A month ago, my daughter and I decorated the house for Christmas while my wife was out. (“Three weeks before Thanksgiving is too early,” she would have said. Scrooge.) Stockings on the mantle, mistletoe above the doorframe, tree by the window; our usual setup. We blasted the Bing Crosby, popped our popcorn and had a lovely time.

But it wasn’t until two weeks later when I was out shopping at the Salvation Army thrift store that the proverbial Christmas spirit hit me. They were playing Silent Night over the sound system. I realized that our Christmas celebrations and preparations had been suspiciously absent of baby Jesus.

Now, I am not one of those let’s-keep-Christ-in-Christmas, He’s-the reason-for-the-season kinds of Christian. I am pro-Santa. But I do revere the nativity story, as I do many biblical narratives, with a strange mixture of reluctant nostalgia for my deeply Evangelical upbringing and a set of genuine theological beliefs.

If there’s one theme that unites these two traditions — the plate-of-cookies-for-santa narrative and the candle-light-Christmas-Eve-service narrative — it’s comfort. The warmth of firelight. The familiarity of ritual. The excitement of anticipation. It’s all very comforting.

Last Sunday, the church across the street from where we live did something very uncomfortable and untraditional. They filed out the doors and into the street chanting, “Hands up — Don’t shoot!” They held signs saying, “Black lives matter to God and us,” and “We can’t breathe,” and “Do Justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” They filled the intersection in front of my building and shut down traffic (with the help of law enforcement officers, it should be added).

(If any of you are unfamiliar with or confused by the anger behind these protests happening around the nation, be sure to read my friend Darren’s recent, piece here on the blog, “Why Ferguson Matters.” It’s excellent.)

I watched all of this from my bathroom window. And I felt really proud of those church members, many of whom are neighbors in our building. I knew the community was racially diverse and very passionate about social justice issues, so it wasn’t surprising that they joined the dozens of other churches here in Chicago staging Sunday morning protestsBut it did surprise me when they sung a Christmas hymn.

O come, o come Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee oh Israel.

O Come O Come Emmanuel is more of a dirge than a hymn. It has this dark, minor tune. It’s gorgeous, of course. But somber.

It’s also not so much about Christmas as about the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. A period of waiting. Not the gleeful anticipation kind of waiting. The groaning with pain and desperate for relief kind. The song is addressed to the nation of Israel under foreign occupation. They are waiting for a Messiah, a Savior who will free them from oppressive rule. It seems as though God has abandoned them, yet the song encourages them to watch for Emmanuel, “God with us,” to arrive.

It’s not merry. It’s not bright. It’s not comfortable. But, I realized, it’s the perfect song for this moment in our own nation. Israel faced injustice and we too face injustice. Israel needed peaceful governance and we too need peaceful governance. Israel eagerly waited for the coming King, and we too should look forward to Jesus’ second coming, when violence and corruption are eradicated — even as we work toward and operate within that Kingdom today.

Here’s what I learned: Protest is deeply Christmas.

The song continues:

Oh come desire of nations bind

In one the hearts of all mankind.

Bid Thou our sad divisions cease

And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee oh Israel.



Note: This post first appeared on Love is an Orientation here