The thing I dislike most is that I have to empathize with EVERYONE. It’s my job. I’m an artist. Okay, so I’ve empathized with you people who spread fear and hate. I now understand. You. Are. Scared. Well, my advice to you is to do what I do when I’m scared— dig deep and try and figure out what I’m afraid of. For example, if I was afraid of Syrian refugees coming to America, I’d try and empathize with them. And in order to do that I’d have to think of other refugees I’ve known. I’d have to imagine myself in their shoes…or lack thereof.
Once upon a time, the United States of America got into a pretty big war with Italy, Japan, and Germany. There were a lot of Italian Americans, German Americans, and Japanese Americans living in my hometown at the time. Lots of paranoia about neighbors and spies and enemy submarines in the San Francisco Bay. So, one day during World War II they came to take my Italian grandmother away and put her in a concentration camp. They called them detainment camps. Luckily she had an Italian American husband who spoke English and who had become an American citizen before sending for her in Italy. It took him nine years to get her to San Jose, California where he had his produce business. My grandfather did not meet his first born until my uncle was nine years old. At the time they came to take my grandmother away, her younger sons, the twins, were serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. After much ado, they let my grandmother stay on her cherry orchard. Some of her Japanese American neighbors, who were also farmers with sons and daughters serving in the U.S. Military, were not so lucky.
I grew up during the Vietnam conflict. I had many older friends and family members who fought in that war. Some died. Some came home; the ones that did were never the same. After Saigon fell, I remember hearing a lot about the “boat people”. I remember reading about many of them dying as they tried to come to America. And I remember reading about those who made it. After high school I met one of them. He was a colleague of mine. Nothing glamorous, we worked the kiosk together at Happy Hollow Park and Baby Zoo. We were both in college. It was in the late 70’s. During the lulls between ticket taking and stroller renting we got to know one another. I told him I was born and raised in San Jose. He told me he was born in a village in Vietnam. I spoke of my Chekhovian childhood growing up on a cherry orchard. He spoke of tyrants who terrorized his village when he was a boy. He spoke of the day he was forced to leave his home and come to the United States. He spoke of the feeling he had when he landed in America. Then he was silent. Then he started to cry. The we hugged.
The people who fled Vietnam and came to America were unwanted by many descendants of refugees who feared they’d bring “bad” people with them. Despite that, my friend from Vietnam became a citizen of the United States. Many others did too. Like my Italian ancestors, some owned businesses, some were teachers, some became city council members, doctors, lawyers, software engineers; etc. I’m sure there were some bad apples who came over with all of those good apples too. Or, as some of my social media friends who are afraid of Syrian refugees are posting on Facebook, “Poison Jelly Beans” or “Bad M&M’s” or a host of other sugary analogies they’ve come up with to defend their case for not wanting to eat poison candy.
Empathy can be a very powerful weapon against fear. But, if you’re still afraid, here is something else you can do to try and rid yourself of fear. You ready? Okay. Turn off the cable news. Did you do it? Good! Now, turn on the Wizard of Oz. Did you do it? Good. Now, watch it. Okay, did you figure out why you are afraid? Right— because you think you have no courage. Well, pretend I’m The Wizard (I did play him once onstage). Okay, now, imagine that I’m giving you a medal for bravery. Congratulations! You now know you have had courage all along! You’ve always been brave! You and your Facebook friends went up against the Wicked Witch and realized it only took a little clean water to get her to disappear! Focus on that! Clean water for everyone! Now everyday I want you to suck it up and be brave! Courage is your second best weapon against fear! Your first is empathy. Notice I did not mention guns. You have enough guns! Another gun does not show us that you have courage. Like Dorothy said to the Lion in the Director’s cut of The Wizard of Oz, “Lion, a gun doesn’t show you are brave, a gun just shows me you have a small penis.” I did not make that up. That quote comes directly from one of Frank L. Baum’s earlier Oz books, Munchkin Dick (unpublished; ©1903).