12/02/2010 07:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

No More Numbing Down: Fostering Love over Suicide

The two black, three-button tuxedos paired near the end of the "I Do! Chicago Ties the Knot" exhibit at the Chicago History Museum stand in stark contrast to the confections of lace and beads and layers of glistening satin on view throughout the show.

They also stand as a kind of bracket to a display that opens the exhibit -- an assembly of black-and-white silhouettes that were considered scandalous in their day. The earliest silhouette dates back to 1790.

The scandalous aspect comes in, explained Tim Long, costume curator at the museum and of the exhibit, because "making them was one of the few things a courting couple could do together that was intimate." This involved drawing the outline of your beloved by candlelight. "Outlining the breast [on the woman] was considered shocking."

Now, looking back over the span of 200-plus years, the silhouette "scandal" is seen as a quaint and charming curiosity. But looking at the two wedding suits standing together, considering the swirl of controversy that surrounds the same-sex marriage question, it's hard to imagine that even 200 years hence, people will think it a quaint curiosity that this was considered "scandalous."

A scarier proposition, though, is that 200 years down the line, this controversy might still be raging. But the real horror lies in the suicide of Tyler Clementi and the countless other suicides and hate crimes attached to this issue. Ellen DeGeneres gave voice to the anguish about Clementi and other teen suicides in a poignant video:

The Clementi tragedy fostered conversations about cyber-bullying, and that's certainly a deeply troubling facet of this situation.

But underneath that, there's a more alarming and dangerous root: human numbness. An Oct. 17 article in the Boston Globe entitled "The empathy deficit" noted:

[N]ew research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.

Forty percent. Earlier, in a New York Times article, Peggy Orenstein cited the study this way:

Consider the fate of empathy: in an analysis of 72 studies performed on nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009, researchers at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found a drop in that trait, with the sharpest decline occurring since 2000. Social media may not have instigated that trend, but by encouraging self-promotion over self-awareness, they may well be accelerating it.

If the last 10 years have exponentially escalated the loss of empathy, and the trait is going the way of the glaciers, can any of us survive its loss? As journalist Keith O'Brien noted in the Globe article, "A world without empathy, they say, is a world we wouldn't want to live in."

But it's not just college students suffering this loss. We live in a Culture of Mean, and the Rule of the Loud. Politicos shout at each other across podiums and platforms, and the one that "wins" the attention is the one who's loudest. "Reality" shows, with their inherent viciousness, thrive on humiliation as their primary means of entertainment.

Some would argue, I suppose, that there is a value in humiliation -- to see that you can survive it, the opportunity to "toughen up." (I loved that Ellen stepped down as an American Idol judge. That made sense to me.) But as our skins become ever thicker in order to survive, we're able to feel less and less.

Plus, people are ready to toughen up at different times. Some never are. Clementi obviously couldn't withstand the humiliation by his peers. As DeGeneres says in the video, "bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country."

It's all around us -- far more a part of the fabric of our lives than empathy. And no amount of anti-bullying legislation is going to be able to make humans feel.

Recognition of this spurred activism such as the It Gets Better project, and more videos, including ones featuring politicians speaking out; Hillary Clinton's examples of the slow-but-steady progress for other disenfranchised groups is particularly hopeful. She states that America is a country where people can "stand up for rights and insist on equality."

But juxtaposed with these messages of support and urgings to be true to yourself is the quagmire of Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- no, do... no, don't... don't know... Up for another vote again on whether people can be who they are. This national waffling over the right to authenticity actually whispers support for bullying. Couple that with an inability to understand how another human being feels, much less ourselves (if our own skin has gotten too thick), and the message is effectively mixed.

Circling back to Chicago and the two suits in the "I Do!" exhibit: For better or worse, our country's pledge says, "One nation, under God." I was taught that God is love, and that love should be honored, revered, and fostered. But can love even exist if our cultural evolution is extinguishing the empathy gene?

The Holy Trinity Lutheran Church that linked the two men who wore these suits operates from empathy. A story on the ceremony in the Windy City Times clarified their policy:

[F]or at least one Chicago same-sex couple and two local pastors, the take-away message from the church-wide assembly is clear enough. "The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has committed itself to being a church of inclusion," said Benjeman Nichols, ... open[ing] doors for blessing committed same-gender relationships. ...

"The church has moved beyond the tired old paradigm that God loves [gay people] despite our sins," Nichols explained. "Now we're seen as equal" insofar as "God created people the same way, gay or straight."

At a memorial service recently, I was reminded of the importance of ceremony and ritual. It was a celebration of a human life and all the people who loved, and were loved by, this person. Weddings are that kind of ritual, too.

As authors like David Myers and Letha Scanzoni point out in "What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage," "marriage is emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually beneficial for everyone, not just heterosexuals."

Tyler Clementi exploring his sexuality, as teens are wont to do, is just part of the process of growing up. If this were a young man and a young woman, they'd date, "draw silhouettes" of each other, and maybe get married, to each other or others. In a parallel universe, his trajectory would follow the same route.

But here we're just not telling people what to do with their bodies, we're telling them what to do with their hearts. And that is bullying of the highest degree.

So instead of being anti-this and anti-that, let's instigate the simple principle of working from the good. Working from the positive. Working in reverse: love fosters empathy, and empathy lessens bullying, and fewer bullies means more people working together in caring and kindness rather than calloused and cruel myrmidons, toward equality.

And being equal, people, any people, can follow their hearts and celebrate love in any life-affirming ritual that they choose ... this would be a clear message, a message of acceptance and inclusion, and embrace, which underscores that bullying has no place here. And that's worth living for.


The "I Do! Chicago Ties the Knot" exhibition at the Chicago History Museum runs until January 2011.