Building the Empathy Superhighway
Goldstein co-founder Omega
Women's Leadership Center
< back to Spiritual
Activism main page
Principle 4. The Means Matters
We bring the intention of love and compassion equally to the
means and the ends, understanding that relationships are central
"You can bomb the world to pieces,
but you can’t bomb it into peace."
As a child of the sixties I was practically born marching. I was
one of those babies in a stroller with a slogan sign around it,
and as I grew up my feet replaced the wheels. I have marched as
a group of two and in a sea of a millionhundred’s of thousands.
Regardless of the demonstration size, being with others shouting
in unison for what I believed in always left me with feelings of
hope and strength. I thought that if enough of us screamed long
enough we could be the tipping point that created peace and equality
in the world.
The first hint I had that screaming at my opponent might not
be the most skillful way to bring about change, and could even
thwart it, was in the early 90s when I was a student living in
Buffalo, New York. There was a large influx of anti-choice demonstrators
that came every weekend to protest outside a women’s health center.
One day several of us decided to counter demonstrate to provide
support to women who had to pass a hostile gauntlet of anti-choice
insults before entering the health center’s front door.
Raw rage pulsed through my body as the mostly older men stood
near the entrance thrusting posters with images of fetuses towards
the women trying to get inside. We stood nearby shouting at the
top of our lungs, “go home” and “leave us alone.” They shouted
back that we were “murderers” and “going to hell.” Empathy for
each other’s viewpoint was nowhere in sight.
As our dueling choruses reached a fevered pitch, someone from
inside the health center came to ask us to quiet down because our
noise level was frightening patients. We were surprised by the
request. If we quieted down we would defeat our purpose of standing
up to anti-choice aggression and if we continued shouting we were
creating the same effect as the hostile gauntlet we came to oppose.
On that afternoon I had the faint realization that if our voices
were adding to a hostile environment for even one woman inside
the health center then our “means” were out of alignment with our
end goal. It would take another decade of incidents like this before
I became committed to finding another way to express my activism
that was grounded in empathy and compassion for all sides and that
recognized the humanity in everyone.
A pivotal moment came in 2005, at the Omega Institute’s Women
and Power conference. Leaders from both sides of the choice issue
came as a group to share what they had learned from their effort
to find mutual understanding after the 1994 Brookline health center
shootings had left them all horrified by the violence. With the
help of The Public Conversations Project (PCP), a non-profit organization
dedicated to helping people reach across divides, they agreed to
meet regularly for a period of time. The hope was that by establishing
real relationships with each other their comments in the press
would become less dehumanizing, which might help shift the public
climate and reduce the violence surrounding the choice issue.
They told of how breaking bread together and exploring the issues
in an atmosphere of trust created deep bonds, empathy, and love
for each other. They did not change their minds on the issue of
choice (the goal was not to change minds), and in fact, the dialogue
ultimately reinforced their original viewpoints. What did change,
however, was their means of expressing their views to each other
and in the news media, which in turn made the cultural debate less
violent than it had been.
Many in the conference audience were greatly moved by their story
and expressed gratification for being able to witness what they
felt was an important step forward into difficult and unchartered
territory of peacemaking. Others concluded that enemies breaking
bread together was nothing new and they expressed frustration at
the lack of tangible progress. They summed up their response by
saying “so what?”
While the two opposing groups’ newfound respect for each other
did not solve the immediate public policy impasse, their dialogue
did lay down new tracks for an important human-based infrastructure
necessary for building a society that is more, as PCP’s mission
statement says, “inclusive, empathetic and collaborative.”
While transportation superhighways helped human beings connect
through travel and the internet superhighway helped us connect
through information, the next frontier is an empathy superhighway that
helps us connect through the heart. By creating a global network
of people capable of feeling the reality of others we can discover
the creative ways to reconcile our differences, heal past traumas,
and build a new way of being together.
As Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who served
on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says
in her book, A Human Being Died That Night, says of the
quality of empathy:
The power of human connectedness, of identification
with the other as ‘bone of my bone’ through the sheer fact of his
being human, draws us to ‘rescue’ others in pain, almost as if
this were a learned response embedded deep in our genetic and evolutionary
past. We cannot help it. We are induced to empathy because there
is something in the other that is felt to be part of the self,
and something in the self that is felt to belong to the other.”
If we can develop stronger human capacity for empathy we will
want to take care of each other and the earth. We will want to
share the food we have and take care of all the world’s children.
We will want to honor the wisdom in those who have lived long lives
and hold the grief with those who have lost loved ones. We will
not want anyone to experience the devastation of war and the fear
of violence. We will deepen our understanding of what it means
to be both unique individual beings and parts of a unified organism.
And just as the global reach of our transcontinental rail system
wasn’t apparent when the first wooden tracks were laid in Germany
to move ore, nor could we imagine the capacity to share information
instantaneously around the world via the internet when the first
communications cable was laid across the ocean, it makes sense
that some came away from the Public Conversations Project dialogue
on choice not seeing the promise of the leaders’ dialogue. Their
response of “so what,” may be because we are in the pioneering
days of creating this empathy superhighway and its ultimate scope
and impact are not yet in view.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine what it
will be like when we have developed a new way of relating to each
other from a place of empathy and an understanding of our ultimate
unity. But if we can build and link enough empathetic hearts, like
the laying of rail road tracks or connecting servers of the internet,
perhaps we can build a human mechanism for reconciling our deepest
disagreements and bringing forth our greatest hopes for humanity.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi
Below is an ongoing exercise for bringing more balanced attention
to the means and the ends in our activism:
Recognizing that all of our actions have impact, we work to bring
alignment between our dreams for peace and our actions for peace,
our dreams for equality and our actions for equality, our dreams
for compassion and our actions for compassion.
At the end of each day spend a few minutes reflecting (keeping
a journal helps) on whether your means and ends have been in alignment
on this day. Ask yourself the following questions, “Today, has
my activism led me to be unkind, violent, dishonest, manipulative,
unfair, or disempowering? Today, how could I have brought greater
alignment between values of peace, justice, compassion, and love
and my actions for peace, justice, compassion, and love? Did I
do anything today that felt effective or satisfying because I brought
more balance between the means and ends of my activism?
Over time, this practice of bringing awareness to the relationship
between your means and ends should help you bring more compassion
and love into your activism, thus bringing more compassion and
love into the world.
Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega's Director of External
Affairs and Director of The Women's Institute at Omega. Carla is
an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy
and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues
related to women's rights, poverty, public health and social justice.
She has contributed to over 100 city, state and federal laws. Carla
has appeared on local and national radio and television and makes
public presentations to a wide range of audiences on issues related
to women’s empowerment and activism. Prior to joining the Omega
Institute, Carla was the VP for Public Affairsat Planned Parenthood
of New York City where she directed the agency'sadvocacy and strategic
communications work. She also served as the foundingdirector of
the PPNYC Action Fund, the political arm of PPNYC. For eight years
Carla was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College, where she
taught, “Law and Social Justice,” a course designed to empower
students to be effective advocates for progressive social change.
As part of Omega’s Faculty, Carla teaches “Spiritual Activism,”
a workshop designed to help people develop their activism in creative
ways that align with their values and lives.
Founded in 1977, Omega is
the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is
provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best
in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals
and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops,
retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside
of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.
Women’s Institute, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated
to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the
momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that
Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since
2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and
inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom
is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving
culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political.
The Women’s Institute provides opportunities for women and men
to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices
through unique learning and community building experiences.
For more information, visit www.eomega.org.