“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau
As state lawmakers decide whether to attend the upcoming legislative session in person or virtually, they also have to choose whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Since many of them are seniors, that’s certainly a good idea.
But what some of them need even more is a healthy dose of empathy. Because whether they’re debating funding for K-12 schools or limiting the ability of the state health officer to protect public health in the middle of a pandemic, Wyoming residents will pay the price for a lack of it.
To be clear, we’re talking about empathy here, not sympathy. What’s the difference? Sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” It’s saying to someone, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and that’s as far as it goes.
Empathy, on the other hand, is “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” It’s truly experiencing the emotions of another person, relating it to something that has happened in your own life and feeling that person’s pain along with them. Hopefully, it then triggers compassion and leads to meaningful action.
Certainly, with a few seemingly hardhearted lawmakers, we’d be happy to sense even an ounce of sympathy. At least then we might see some dollars put toward helping their fellow seniors stay in their homes, maintaining programs to help troubled teens turn their lives around or ensuring tens of thousands of Wyoming residents don’t continue living without health insurance. But sympathy only goes so far.
Need proof some “empathy injections” are needed? Earlier this month, members of the House of Representatives were debating House Bill 62, which would have required K-12 schools to provide suicide prevention education to students. Some teens from Cody High School had previously testified in support of the bill, sharing with lawmakers on the House Education Committee the pain and sense of helplessness they suffered as they lost classmates to suicide and wondered what they could have done to prevent these tragedies.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, shared with his colleagues that from 2016 to 2019, Wyoming saw a 42% increase in adolescent suicides, and in 2018, the state had the highest suicide death rate in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet during virtual floor debate, one representative after another downplayed the need for the legislation. The clincher came when Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette and a retired physician, had the microphone: “I’m 75 years old, and I don’t remember a single member of my class that committed suicide. I think it was a very rare condition back then, so that tells me that this approach that we’re talking about with this bill is just a continuation of what’s been going wrong in our society, and for that reason, it causes me to vote no on this bill.”
Are you serious? By that logic, no one should worry about the impact too much screen time is having on our children because smartphones, video games and social media didn’t exist 75 years ago. Or, “I never experienced racial or gender discrimination, so it doesn’t exist.”
Now you can argue Mr. Hallinan’s comment was caused by ignorance as much as a lack of empathy, and we might not disagree with you. But because the lower chamber voted 25-34 against sending the bill to the Senate, it’s clear many of his colleagues share his lack of concern for the very real suffering taking place across our state.
There are plenty of other examples of lawmakers refusing to put themselves in someone else’s shoes before casting a vote against legislation that would help residents in need.
Here are just a few examples:
- New state Sen. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, told a Washington Post writer in January: “Small towns and counties in Wyoming have always come and gone with the minerals. We’ve got counties in the state of Wyoming that are on life support with state money ... and maybe it doesn’t make sense to keep doing what we are doing with counties, or cities.” So sorry, people who live in small towns.
- On the front page of the same newspaper where we reported the vote on the suicide prevention bill, Sen. Kolb is pictured talking with a Legislative Service Office staff member. Guess which one is wearing a mask? In fact, many members of the Legislature who attended the recent eight-day virtual session in person at the Capitol were seen chatting with colleagues without face coverings. So sorry, LSO staff.
- No fewer than four separate bills have been filed seeking to limit the authority of the state health officer and governor to issue public health orders to protect residents from threats like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So sorry, vulnerable friends and neighbors.
Of course, not all state legislators are as self-centered. Most of them are good people, but many just don’t take the time to understand what the average Wyoming resident is dealing with on a daily basis.
Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said recently that as revenue estimates have improved, “I think you’ll find that even the most hard-nosed conservative understands the need in our individual communities to take care of the most vulnerable, and those safety net programs serve a real purpose.” We hope he’s right, and budget cuts aren’t as painful as Gov. Mark Gordon has proposed.
But, unfortunately, becoming empathetic isn’t as easy as sitting down, rolling up a sleeve and getting a vaccination. It takes work. It takes a willingness to change. And, most of all, it takes a genuine compassion for your fellow human being.
The question is whether enough of the 90 people who will decide our state’s future have it, can tap into it and will use it for the good of all.