Empathy Does Not Mean Agreement, It Means Understanding

Way back when I was going through my legal ordeal, I had to take 101 assessment tests to determine if I was deemed a risk for “reoffending” because I committed a sexual offense. Everybody who ever administered a test or has been a therapist of mine knew the results before the tests happened, but it’s part of the whole system and it wasn’t like I was in a position to say no. Time after time after time, they proved what we all knew. I wasn’t pathological ill. I made a horrible mistake which was a result of my addictions to porn and alcohol.

There was only ever one red flag in these assessments and it came up again and again. It indicated that I had an abnormally low sense of empathy. I did the sympathy thing well, but I was not good at putting myself in other’s shoes and hypothetically seeing and feeling this from their position.

Part of me still disagrees with this conclusion. Back when I was deep in my addictions, I think I drank and looked at porn not just for the control that lacked in my life, but also because it numbed my emotions. I can’t tell you the number of movies or TV shows I cried at back then. Heck, specific pieces of music, especially operatic arias and piano solos, made me weep. I intentionally stayed away from news about kids and animals that would make me sad, really anything that would get me going because once I started, I couldn’t stop. I had to make sure the sad movies only came late at night. It was easier to cry myself to sleep than be crying all day if I saw the movie at 1 p.m.

In public, I had to keep the stiff upper lip and often that meant turning a blind eye to emotion. I couldn’t succumb to it. I think I had so much unresolved in my life that I managed with my addictions that if I started to think about others, it brought me to bad places because it made me think about me. Sometimes, in forcing myself to keep a stiff upper lip, I came across at heartless to others. I didn’t say horrible things very much, I just gave off the vibe that I didn’t care.

I built a wall because, much like my bipolar disorder (and maybe because of it) I had two emotional checkpoints: full-on and off. It was easier to just stay switched to the off positions. Part of me wonders if that popped up in those assessments because they happened so early into my recovery.

That said, there are many indicators that I’m a much more outwardly empathetic person these days. Nobody seems to ever call me on the carpet for being callous or saying the wrong thing anymore. I also almost never cry at movies or TV. It has to be very, very emotional. In some ways, I think people would see that as being harder now, but I think I learned to be healthy in real life, so I don’t need to have the outlet of fantasy to be emotional.

In the last year or two though, I find one other thing happening… I seem to be developing a more liberal, human-friendly attitude toward the world. This has been underscored this last two weeks watching the social unrest happening coast to coast and being absolute disgusted by the ways so many people are reacting. Whether they are government officials, run-of-the-mill racists, or looters, the trend I’m noticing is that I’m offended when there is a lack of empathy being shown.

I’ve heard if you’re not a liberal at 30 and conservative at 60 that something is wrong, but I think I may be operating in reverse. I think because of the integrity I tried to maintain as a journalist I prided myself on being very middle-of-the-road. As I said in a recent post, I’ve been able to vote in six Presidential elections and I’m 3-3 voting Democrat vs. Republican. I was always fiercely independent because there is just so much wrong with a blind loyalty to each party.

I’ve witnessed this graduation to conservatism in many of my friends who I followed on social media before I got off of it years ago. During a brief return last year, the fact they became different people than I once knew is part of what drove me away. There are now extended family members who I wouldn’t want to share the same room with because of their willingness to openly spout their rhetoric.

Now, I still greatly respect the Republican Party, the principles it was founded upon and what it is supposed to stand for, but over the last three years, its leaders have seemed to reach a place where they have co-opted that belief system for whatever it is that Donald Trump stands for…which I think is largely just whatever makes him feel powerful at the moment. There has been so many concessions to their core beliefs that I would never identify as a Republican these days. I wouldn’t want somebody to confuse me as one since they have morphed into the party of no empathy.

The rallying cry of many Republicans over the last two weeks (once they say that they are not racist and George Floyd shouldn’t have died) is that “All Lives Matter!” Well, no shit, Sherlock.

What they can’t do is put themselves into the shoes of black people (or any other minority) and understand why we are highlighting black lives right now. They do matter equal to all others, but historically, they haven’t been treated as equal, especially by law enforcement and the court system. The statistics are so overwhelmingly anti-black that it is far more than the lame “a few bad apples” excuse to the fact that in a place like Minneapolis, the police are historically going to use force against a black suspect seven times more than a white one. That is not “a few bad apples.” That’s profiling based on the color of your skin.

I sometimes wonder if these people are really meaning to say, “All lives matter, but it’s OK that they matter differently as long as mine matters most!” All lives do matter, but when some are treated differently, we have to lift them up so it’s equal. Black lives matter because currently, black lives don’t matter as much to many in law enforcement.

I can understand why early on in these kinds of events, you see property damage, fires, etc. These are caused by many people who cannot regulate their emotions and have reached a breaking point. Get many of these passionate, emotional people together and you’ve got recipe for bad things happening. But, as you’ve seen over the last two weeks, once that initial inability to process thoughts and emotions fades, the protests have become mainly peaceful. If you have empathy, you can understand how a frustrated, angry person who had been treated unfairly in a country that pretends it’s all equal, will lash out.

It was a very different group of people looting. These are not people who are empathetic to the cause and the suffering. They don’t think about how they hurt the message or how they are causing damage when they are stealing. They are opportunists who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Thankfully, I live with a wonderful woman who has always had empathy and while she doesn’t follow politics, has a very compassionate heart. We don’t talk politics. We just talk about people who are very insensitive and don’t seem to “get it.”

Her best friend from school — who she was actually the matron of honor for at her wedding about 15 years ago — has been mentioned a bit in the last few years. She married a guy who was very conservative and has adopted many of his beliefs. I really liked her when I first met her 18 years ago, but he was the kind of guy set in his ways at 25 — probably because he just mirrored his father’s beliefs without much analysis — and those people are not fun to be around, especially when they are under 70.

They’ve not seen each other often in the last 10 years, sometimes going out for drinks with other friends and my wife, who successfully went through bariatric surgery, helped her friend into that process. In the end, her friend dropped out of the process because it was too rigorous.

When my wife mentions her friend, it’s because she’s said something on social media that does not reflect the person she knew as a teenager, and it actually doesn’t reflect the person I knew the first couple years we were married before she met her husband. It reached a point this week where my wife decided she had to stop following her friend. She’s turned into someone unrecognizable and someone she doesn’t need to regularly follow.

The last straw was when her friend complained about a protest march between the two cities, that basically make one community, where we live. The march went over one of the three major bridges between the towns, and traffic was tied up for — get this — 9 minutes. Her friend was bellyaching online about this, citing that emergency personnel couldn’t get through if they wanted and that a demonstration could have been somewhere away from people who didn’t want to be bothered.

Several people pointed out to my wife’s friend that the bridge is regularly closed down for things like the Fourth of July celebration, various parades and 10K races, etc, and that she was just miffed because she didn’t support the cause. She didn’t respond after that.

This got me thinking that I don’t believe you need to support a cause to still understand it. I’m not even asking for someone to appreciate it…just objectively understand, which is the first step toward empathy. I believe we are now in a climate where if you admit that you understand someone’s opinion that is not like yours, that there’s this belief you’ll be labeled as one of those people. I think that there are conservatives, particularly those who participate in the comment section FoxNews.com who would rather be called a pedophile than a liberal. Conversely, there are people who are afraid if they say the word “pedophile” they will be labeled as such.

I don’t approach nearly as many podcasts to appear as I once did because they’re approaching me, but in the past, when I was politely rejected, I often got the feeling that they feared a discussion about pornography addiction would somehow morph into their listener’s ears into an endorsement of pornography. I get the same feeling with these “All Lives Matter” folks. If they take a few minutes to understand why people are chanting “Black Lives Matters” they fear they’ll be lumped with the group. Since when is ignorance the better option to anything?

Now, you could turn this on me and say, “Do the Black Lives Matter people understand what the All Lives Matter people are trying to say?” and I have to say, I think that answer is yes. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the All Lives Matter people are challenged by change and are for the status quo. They think that things are fine, or fine enough that we don’t need to overhaul the system.

Putting yourself in another’s shoes is just simply asking “Do I understand where they are coming from?” Understanding others does not mean agreeing with them, but it is a solid step in the right direction as a “united” country. Thank can only happen with empathy.

Excerpt from “Jesus Is Better Than Porn”

Note from Josh: Today I turn over the reins to Hugh Houston, who has written the inspirational and successful book, “Jesus is Better Than Porn.” He has graciously allowed me to excerpt a piece of his book that talks about what a mind that focussed on porn needs to be replaced with. I know Amazon is taking a bit of time getting real books to people these days, but there are also Kindle and Audiobook versions available. A link is at the end of the excerpt.

From Jesus is Better Than Porn by Hugh Houston

There were times when I reasoned that dealing with porn was worse than an addiction to alcohol or cocaine because everywhere I went, my thoughts went with me. I had a library of impure images filed away in my brain.  How could I ever get rid of them?  These obscene thoughts had invaded every corner of my mind.  They were with me when I laid my head on my pillow at night and when I woke up in the morning.  How could I avoid them?  I felt like my brain was a haunted house inhabited by a million ghosts.

Imagine an empty glass.  It’s not really empty, it’s full of air.  Now imagine trying to get all of the air out of the glass.  You might try using a vacuum cleaner, but that probably won’t work. The easiest way to get the air out of the drinking glass is to fill it with something else, like water.  The water goes in and the air goes right out.

That’s what I had to do with my brain.  How could I get rid of all of those obscene thoughts that hounded me day and night?  I had to focus my mind on good things.  As I learned to dwell on healthy thoughts, I began to win the battle against those lusty images that attempted to take control of my mind.

The apostle Paul gives this advice:

“Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)

Motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar urged people to get rid of “stinking thinking”. Well, there is nothing worse than a carnal mind using other people for its own selfish ends.  The best way I know of to push all of those immoral images from my brain is to replace them with thoughts which are pure, true, noble, admirable, and excellent.  Our primary battleground in the war against this plague (or any other undesirable practice), lies in what we decide to think about, what we allow to occupy the space between our ears.

In 1427 Thomas A. Kempis wrote the following in The Imitation of Christ:

“Above all, we must be especially alert against the beginnings of temptation, for the enemy is more easily conquered if he is refused admittance to the mind and is met beyond the threshold when he knocks.  First, a mere thought comes to mind, then strong imagination, followed by pleasure, evil delight, and consent. Thus, because he is not resisted in the beginning, Satan gains full entry. And the longer a man delays in resisting, so much the weaker does he become each day, while the strength of the enemy grows against him.”

This has certainly been true in my life. When I resist temptations right off the bat, I do just fine. But if I give in just a hair, leave the door ajar just a fraction of an inch, it soon becomes almost impossible not to yield.  My best strategy (really the only strategy that works) is to avoid every impure thought and to stay as far away from the slippery slope as possible.

Impure thoughts cannot be toyed with.  Only a fool tries to see how close he can get to the edge of the slippery slope before sliding down all the way to the bottom.  The best way to head off feelings of lust is to nip them in the bud.  Act quickly, vigorously, and decisively.  Be radical.  It is the only way to ever break free from the compulsive cycle of porn and lust.

If you’d like to learn more about Hugh Houston or order a copy of Jesus is Better than Porn, click here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DMF6ZQS

I Totally Forgot My Anniversary of Sobriety…Maybe That’s a Good Thing

I’m writing this the evening of March 22, 2016. March 20, which is the anniversary of the last time I used pornography (six years and two days ago) and I didn’t realize it. In past years, it’s something I’ve seen coming and celebrate. I know we’ve got a worldwide plague going on, but I don’t know how much that really distracted me this year.

The truth is, I don’t feel any more special than I did on years 4 or 5. I expect to feel the same on year 7, with 100% assumption I’ll get there. Sure, I’m proud of myself, but it’s my new normal. It’s not even my new normal. it’s just my normal. I don’t know if my normal state of being is what is to be praised or if failing my normal state of being is now the bigger story, should it ever happen. I don’t think about the fact on April 1, it will be 6 years since I’ve had a drink because I just don’t drink anymore, much like I don’t about how on April 15 it’ll be 28 years since I got my driver’s license. I’ll only think about how long I’ve been driving when I crash the car.

I think the celebration of milestones is a little piece of what drove me from the 12-step groups. You get chips/coins for certain amounts of days, months or years that you’re sober, like little trophies. Since a pathological need for trophies was part of my sick former life, and I operate better without them now, highlighting moments that I feel should be part of the process seems wrong in my situation. If you feel better about a coin that says you didn’t use in a certain amount of time, please, take one. I just don’t want it.

I have two coins that mean something to me and I got each upon graduating from my two inpatient rehabs, respectively. I see them about once a year when I clean out my desk drawer.

I guess by mentioning the milestone of two days ago, it does still mean something to me, but more than that, I want anybody reading who is short of six years or has absolutely no time behind them to realize that you can get here. If I, who was a porn addict, alcoholic, horrible husband, father and son, self-centered narcissist and egotist who thought you were only put on this earth to serve my needs can change 180 degrees, so can you.

Early recovery is a bitch, but it does get easier. Yes, your life will change. Yes, many of the people around you will change. But those are good, necessary things. I’ve still not met a truly recovered person who is not far happier than when they were using. After a while, you even stop romanticizing the “good times” and see them as what they were, the “sick times.”

We’re in a weird time right now, and I worry about former addicts falling back into old roles and those in early recovery tossing in the towel. If there was any time to say, “screw it” one could make the argument it’s now, but those of us deep into recovery can testify there is no time to say “screw it” ever. Especially if you’re a sex addict. Heh heh heh. We have nothing if we don’t have laughter.

So yeah, six years. Yay me. Go wash your hands.

The Longer I’m in Recovery, The More I Avoid Conflict from Differing Opinions

Over the years, my wife has pointed out to me that I tend to speak of the Boston Red Sox in terms of “we” as in “We just may have made the greatest mistake in trading away Mookie Betts since we let Babe Ruth go to the Yankees.” My wife is the first to point out to me that it’s a situation of “they” not “we.” I was not consulted on the Betts trade and aside from the large tattoo on my calf and numerous articles of clothing, I don’t actually contribute anything to the Red Sox.

I laugh about this because I don’t think this is one thing I’ll ever be able to change. It doesn’t matter exact players, I feel like I have a connection to the Red Sox and understand when people feel the same way about their teams. But here’s the thing, I think even the most diehard fan understands that it’s all harmless fun. Well, maybe not some groups of European soccer fans, but for the most part, here in North America, I believe we large have our sports fanaticism in check.

If you ever get DirecTV, the remote controls stink. Just when you think it’s the batteries, it turns out you have to reboot the system because a gremlin got into it. This is how I ended up on a Fox News program this morning. If I understand it correctly, they were talking about the fact that another cable news network show had said Michael Bloomberg was as bad in his debate the other night as Donald Trump was in 2016. So simply by repeating this, and actually show stats that proved it to be true, Fox News got the ire of Donald Trump. But a different Fox talking head was appearing to defend the first talking head for having stats to back up what a talking head said on a different channel about a comparison to something that happened four years ago that in the end, had no bearing, because Trump won.

This was the moment that I got up out the chair, went to the back of the TV, and turned the damn thing off. It was also the moment that I realized something else. Over the last two years, I’ve not been to a Boston Red Sox game (about a two-hour drive from where I live) nor had I watched more than a couple of game on television.

I used to be a politics junkie. I loved the game, especially when I was covering it for various newspapers I worked for. I’ll admit that for years, I didn’t vote because I didn’t want to have to pick a side. I was trying to be impartial back when that was still the norm. Unfortunately, in a splintered information world, there’s more money to be made preaching to the choir than informing them of things they don’t want to hear.

Early in recovery, I stopped really following the news. I still see headlines and can’t avoid what’s going on entirely, especially if I tune in to see the weather report, but I work my hardest not to pick sides now because the news is really just one person’s interpretation of something that happened. Most news today isn’t even that. It’s one person’s interpretation of another person’s interpretation of something that happened. Those nighttime news commentary shows, whether it’s Sean Hannity, Don Lemon or Rachel Maddow are entertainment, not news. It’s like Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight for people who follow pop culture news. And, it’s also like the pre-game and post-game shows for actual Red Sox games. It’s just talk, talk, talk.

Over the last few months, I think I’ve recognized early recovery is over. I’m in a new phase. Maybe it’s intermediate recovery. The thing that is bother me most is that I find I’m getting a bit testy toward people who can’t divorce their personal opinions and beliefs as being correct facts from other people with different personal opinions and beliefs as being incorrect facts.

Guess what? There is no correct religion. There is also no incorrect religion. Not have a religion isn’t even right or wrong. The fervent believers of any religion believe that they have the correct set of answers to this and the next life. By believing that, they believe that someone just as devout who worships in a different building is wrong. In essence…they picked the wrong team.

Guess what? There is no correct political party. There is also no incorrect political party. And there’s nothing wrong with removing yourself from politics. Democrats are arguing for things Republicans argued for 40 years ago and vice versa. It’s not about the rhetoric…it’s part of making sure you’re picking the right team.

Intermediate recovery has shown me that in this life, there really are no teams. There’s just all of us, and clinging to a belief that your team is better than the other team is more a function of your own inadequacies and fears than whatever the other side is saying or doing. As humans, we have an inner need not only as individuals to be unique and special, but also to identify with others who share our beliefs about what make us unique and special.

I don’t care if you love the Yankees. It’s your belief I’m less of a person because I like the Red Sox that bothers me. I don’t care when my liberal friends say I’m too conservative or my conservative friends say I’m too liberal. If they think the political beliefs – that I mainly keep to myself at all times – make me a bad person, they’re the one with the problem. If somebody thinks that I’m in a position for eternal damnation because I don’t worship their version of God or the rules they adhere to for following him, they should really spend more time worrying about their bad habit of passing judgment on others.

Maybe intermediate recovery is very isolating. Maybe it’s about becoming a curmudgeon. Maybe it’s about cutting myself off from what other people think. Maybe it’s about recognizing I can’t control the world – and as a guy whose control issues defined him and caused the addictions – it’s better to cede all control of everything except myself.

I don’t care who you’re voting for in November. I don’t care why you like them. And most importantly, I don’t care why you don’t like the other guy.

It’s going to be a long eight months…

Your one-minute answer to “Why Don’t Addicts Just Stop?”

One of the most frequently asked questions I get when I do podcasts is something along the lines of “When the average person looks at an addict, they can’t understand why the addict doesn’t just stop. Why can’t they?” For someone who doesn’t have the experience of being an addict, it’s a question that makes sense to me. I have no idea how so many things in this world work or why they are the way they are. The best way to find out is to ask, so for all of those who have ever wondered, I provide this 1-minute answer from my appearance on The Come to the Table Podcast.

Even if you’ve heard my story before, I’d urge you to at least listen to the first 20-25 of this episode as it’s a conversation I’ve not had before, touching on my spirituality, upbringing in the church, the modern state of the Catholic Church, and a quirky “would you rather” game.