A Call for Empathy
by Jason Romano
I’ve spent a lot of time on social media throughout the 2000s, since Twitter came bursting onto the scene and changed journalism forever. About half of my 17 years at ESPN were spent serving as a social media producer for NFL on ESPN and Mike & Mike. These days I use those same skills as a podcast host and content manager for Sports Spectrum, a faith-based sports magazine. I’m incredibly thankful for social media because it not only has been a space in which I’ve enjoyed my job in sports media but also has been a space in which I have been able to genuinely connect with people whom I’ve never met before—about something as personal as faith, about something as serious as my dad’s alcoholism, and, yes, about something as enjoyable as sports. As crazy as it sounds, some of my dearest friends today are people whom I originally connected with on social media.
But social media was different in its genesis. When Twitter became popular, it was filled with dialogue and debate, insider perspectives, and a wealth of information that Twitter users could react to in real time. There were still those who cowardly hid behind their keyboard and sent insults and death threats to those whom they disagreed with, but overall, social media was a haven for information, for journalistic innovation, and for connection.
It seems to me that things have changed. When the pandemic forced us to quarantine, it’s no surprise that social media became the stage in which so many Americans spent much of their time and energy. Social media has exposed the dark underbelly of our country’s toxic discourse and the rampant division among us.
No, the solution is not to magically get everyone to agree with one another. The solution, rather, is empathy. There is a gaping leadership void in this country due to lacking empathy. Empathy doesn’t scapegoat. It doesn’t cancel. It doesn’t demonize. Empathy affirms the humanity of someone else, even in disagreement, even in their differences. As Americans who belong to one another and are connected to one another, we must allow empathy to lead the way again.
The best boss I ever had at ESPN was Carol Voronyak, whom I worked for as a talent producer. One Christmas, she gave each of her five talent producers a long-handwritten note where she explained, in detail, what she was thankful for in us as individuals. It was the nicest thing I ever received at ESPN. She then gave each of us talent producers a stack of blank cards and encouraged us to repeat that exercise for one another. Creating that kind of space to affirm one another’s God-given personalities, gifts, and skills was truly counter-cultural at a place that was often cutthroat and sometimes all about climbing higher on the corporate ladder. But the exercise was one of the many things she did to help create a culture of empathy among us.
This is the kind of movement it will take for our country to heal. We need leaders who are driven by empathy, whether it’s in the highest offices of our land or whether it’s you and I each day on social media.
Jesus was animated by empathy. Before confronting the woman at the well of her sin, He affirmed her. Though Peter denied Jesus three times, the Risen Savior saw the beauty of Peter’s heart, reinstated him, and empowered him to start the early church. Christ’s entire ministry was centered in meeting people where they were and letting them know that they were fully loved and accepted by God, no matter their past, no matter how misguided they might have been in their opinions or their politics. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus paints the picture of a God who pursues both of his sons with a loving fervor, despite the elder son’s self-righteousness and the younger son’s foolishness.
In a year where so much has gone wrong—and in an election year, no less—it is time to show one another empathy and let love lead the way. As Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Jason Romano is the author of the new book The Uniform of Leadership. He is the host of the popular Sports Spectrum podcast, interviewing athletes and other people on the intersection of sports and faith. Romano spent 17 years as a producer and content creator at ESPN in Bristol, CT. His first book Live to Forgive was released in January 2018.
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