On Empathy and Strength


It’s two in the morning. I stand in front of the mirror, pulling skin from my hair, watching Trevor Noah discuss the weaponization of white womanhood. Excoriation is how my mental illness manifests today. It’s half-past six, and I am in the shower, wincing as shampoo stings my raw scalp. Good morning, I’m Korva Coleman and this is NPR news. I swallow a spoonful of peanut butter and it gets stuck.

Twelve forty-one, Mr. Rios is talking about the Cult of Domesticity. 

Forty-two, tick-tick, forty-three, my mask feels tight, tick-tock, forty-four. Forty-five. I am counting my breaths, nauseous. I scrape charred onions from a skillet. 

It is 11:24 PM on November 3rd, 2020. 

For the past seven hours, I’ve been sloshing cold coffee in a cup, clammy-palmed and glued to screens. Tab One: Live Updates from the Associated Press. Tab Two: Watch Election Day 2020 Coverage and Results Live. Tab Three: AP stats how do I calculate if events are independent or not

A ping jolts me out of my stupor, and I hobble across the room on stiff knees. It is a text from Austyn with links to the Grandview Chronicle. Read them, he says, read them and read the comments. So I do. 

I read Jori O’Grady’s, then Lizzy Leung’s piece. High school really is a microcosm of our nation. Just as I’m finishing up Leung’s piece, journalist Major Garrett’s voice rings out from Tab Two: “…[approach] to politics is this ‒ he assumes that strength always beats empathy.”

Strength always beats empathy. Huh. 

In all the movies, sixteen is sweet, the makeover montage is a must, and summer lovin’ happens so fa-a-ast. High school is all Americana ‒ Heath Ledger, Heath Ledger-ing; Molly Ringewald and her sushi; love letters and midnight breakfasts and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This isn’t our coming of age. 

Our coming of age is jaded. There’s blood in our gutters and lead in our bones. Cotton is strung tight over our mouths. We’re forming, solidifying, and dismantling our identities in the foreground of bigotry, boarded windows, and bullets. There’s too much talking and too little listening. So many humans and so little humanity. 

We are growing up in a world where strength isn’t derived from empathy, but pitted against it. 

There’s some sort of continuity error here. There must be. If I am sure of anything, it is this: to be strong, we need empathy.

To be empathetic is to be strong.

I see you in the hallways. Your eyes are drooping. Mine are, too. You are tired. I am, too.

Breonna Taylor is murdered, and we take tests on the citric acid cycle. Roe v. Wade becomes increasingly unstable, and we write about the election of 1824. Our families are immunocompromised, and we discuss the symbolism of East Egg and West Egg.

It’s jarring.

It is 1:05 AM on November 4th, 2020, and my nails taste like chalk. I don’t know what the world will look like when I wake, or how heavy I’ll feel. I don’t know if I’ll have green tea or black with breakfast. 

But this, I do know: empathy is where we begin to pick up the pieces. 

Open hearts and open minds are the playing fields for civil discourse. I know nothing braver than vulnerability. I know nothing more powerful than human connection. I have yet to encounter a force stronger than raw, heartfelt empathy. If you need a bipartisan constant to cling to amidst the chaos, let it be this. Let it be listening, and love. Let it be us, the young people of the world, and all the glory of our untapped idealism. 

Above all, let it be empathy.