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REFLECTIONS ON EMPATHY, VULNERABILITY AND MASCULINITY

Oct 2nd, 2019 / 5 min read

My mother likes to tell the apocryphal story about a parent-teacher conference where she was told I was the most empathetic child the teacher had ever met.

 

Sounds flattering, but empathy isn’t an easy trait for a young man to inhabit. The phrase “toxic masculinity” may not have been common usage at that time, but it certainly existed. In my eyes, the unattainable masculine ideal was either confident and competitive, or brooding and self-destructive. In pursuit of this ideal, I hid my own feelings and insecurities, even as I embraced those of others.

 

Eventually I found a realm where empathy was actually a super power: in travel. As a study abroad student in Spain, I found common ground across language-barriers talking politics with the socialist father of my host family. In the months after the Iraq invasion, I found it on a bus in Egypt, talking to a young man who wondered why we Americans hated Muslims.

 

With my two traveling companions, I built an organization around the power of listening. Our unspoken premise was that the world could be made better by cross-cultural dialogue, possible like never before thanks to emerging digital technology.

 

The project resulted in accolades and acceptance in the field of journalism  But when we took our premise to its fullest manifestation, making a 77-minute documentary about a Middle Eastern refugee living in the shadow of a terrorism accusation, it fell flat. It didn’t change the world, or even his life.

 

The failure made me reevaluate my role as an intermediary storyteller, and revise my premise; it wasn’t just more information that was needed, but more voices speaking directly. I became editor of a publication that trained people traditionally underrepresented in media production. Writers were able to freely discuss their issues and experiences, and even vent about injustices, without an “objective” mediator.

 

Empathy served me well in editing. I genuinely cared what others thought and felt. I was fulfilled by helping them articulate themselves and reach others. It was the best job I ever had.

 

But the other shoe dropped heavy on Nov 8th, 2016. 

 

Near-universal access to platforms meant people around the country were being heard for the first time. But it turns out those voices had only alienated others, and stirred up a toxic stew of resentment.

 

I’ve begun to suspect that algorithmically-curated online communication is actually antithetical to building trust, community and empathy. What’s needed is not more people talking, but more spaces for listening.

 

And not just listening to others, but to one’s self.

As an editor, I’d used my empathy to relate to others and welcome them to open up their wounds to the world. But I’d kept my own hidden.

 

Cis straight white men like me still hold most the keys to power. And we are trained through constructs of masculinity to clench our fists around them, even to our own detriment.

 

Now I believe vulnerability and transparency are the stepping stones to our liberation. My goal as a leader is to model these values myself, as I work to create viable spaces for trust, human connection and healing.

I was an international journalist in my late 20s. It's not what the movies — and this broody photo from a bombed-out mansion in Beirut — might have you imagining.  

I worked on grant-funded projects for a few months at a time, trying to make meaning for fellow Americans out of scary-sounding places like Syria, Russia & Pakistan.

It was only ever dangerous in fleeting moments... usually just stressful, and sometimes fun because I was doing it with people I loved. 

Ultimately, it was a lot easier to connect with the locals who I was supposed to be reporting about, than it was to make their stories matter to a broad audience back home. 

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