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Empathy and the Value of Living With Ambiguity

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Walt Stoneburner/Flickr
Walt Stoneburner/Flickr

This is the winning entry for the Dialogue at Large category of The Fetzer Institute -- Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest.

I used to be an evangelical missionary. I was aching for an identity I could be proud of like any pre-teen, when I 'found Jesus' at the tender age of 12. During the remainder of my formative teen years, I became increasingly devoted to my faith. Indeed, my beliefs became the foundation of who I was: my disciplines, my social network, my driving motivations, EVERYthing. In fact, they became so important a priority to me that I took a year off after high school to do missionary work.

Ironically, it was this immersion in the world of my evangelical beliefs that ultimately sparked the dialogue that challenged me to expand who I was. One of my dearest friends in our program had an incredible testimony as the only person I'd ever met who'd been 'delivered' from being gay. I was so intrigued by him and admired his commitment, insightful spirit, and leadership qualities. Yet when I called him on his birthday right after I'd returned to college, he burst into tears and told me he had tried as hard as he could, but found it was no use -- he was still gay and couldn't see a way out. He was from a tiny town in Arkansas where his father was the pastor. His family said that the right thing to do as leaders of the church was to cast him out. So he was essentially homeless at 19 with nowhere to go and no one else that could care for him. He cried and cried and said he only wanted to love and be loved by a companion like anybody else (contrary to the seedy political-scandal-style promiscuity I imagined as associated with LGBT people before I really understood our common needs).

That struck me so, so hard... how could the faith I cherished so strongly also be the faith that spurred people in rejecting their fellow human beings in ways that were practically antithetical to compassion? As had been true my whole life, I considered this my most important virtue. But how to reconcile it with my need for continuity in my belief system? But I decided to go out on a limb and trust that empathy really was worth being wrong for, worth living with ambiguity for, worth seeming less 'strong-willed' for in order to maintain the open mind and heart it requires.

Ten years later, I have no regret. The world does not hold the easy answers I thought it did, but it has held just as much wonder and more. Recently I volunteered at a conference for LGBT teens, many of whom admitted they have cloistered themselves away from those who don't identify that way because they fear they would be rejected. I told them what I now tell you: Those are exactly the people who need you to value them enough to share your story. Because you never know when someone like me might actually respect you enough to allow their mind to be changed.