What a Grumpy Old Farmer Taught Me About Empathy


“Hurt people hurt people.” – Lizzie Velasquez

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Michigan Farm Bureau state annual conference and serve as a delegate representative for my county. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Farm Bureau or organizations like it, members from across the state come together every year to discuss what type of policy they support or oppose. This helps lobbyists at the state and local level prioritize which issues to focus on. It really is a cool experience to be a part of and demonstrates how you can have a greater level of influence in government when lots of individuals come together.

Anyways, I was a delegate for my county and I decided to stand up and propose policy supporting the continuation of Net Neutrality. Now, it’s my personal belief that Net Neutrality should not be a partisan issue – through my view of the world, it’s a consumer protection issue – but I also know that everything is a partisan issue in today’s political landscape.

And farmers tend to be pretty conservative – not super conducive to a proposal supporting regulations.

It was probably going to be fighting an uphill battle, but I proceeded to step up to the microphone and state my desired policy language. I had researched the topic and wrote it out ahead of time so that I said it in an informed, coherent manner. Having put my idea forward, I stepped back from the microphone and took a deep breath – pretty proud of myself for working up the guts to speak out.

And then the debate began.

As expected, there were several people who disagreed with me. They cited past regulation and beliefs about whether or not the internet is a utility that everyone should have access to and the ideal of just letting the free market sort itself out. Not surprisingly, I didn’t agree with many of their counterpoints – but everyone was respectful and their arguments made sense.

Until this one man spoke up.

Young people just don’t think things through all the way, he said. ‘Free’ and ‘open’ and ‘fair’ are all well and good, but they just don’t understand how it really works.

And then I was mad.

Initial Reactions

I can deal with people disagreeing with me. In many cases, I actually enjoy it! Many of my favorite discussions in the past year have been with people I disagree with, where we debate our viewpoints. In all of those interactions, though, the people I debated with were respectful and kept our discussion focused on the ideas at hand – never making it about personal attacks. Not this guy though.

Young people just don’t think things through.

See, what made me so mad about this man was the fact that he wasn’t debating the merits of the argument like so many who had stepped up to the microphone before him. He was attacking me and my intelligence. And, if there’s one thing most people who know me would tell you, it’s never belittle my intellect. It’s the thing I value most about myself and it’s the thing I will take most personally if you doubt it. Sure, we may have disagreeing viewpoints – but don’t ever question that I haven’t done my homework. (I’m a perfectionist with a string of self-doubt – I always do my homework to avoid looking stupid!)

And so, once the delegate session finished, I proceeded to bitch and moan to everyone I could find.

Fine – go ahead and disagree with me, but don’t say I don’t understand the issue! Debate ideas, not people. We can look at the exact same situation and have different opinions – that doesn’t make me less intelligent.

And, yes, I was so offended that I even stooped to the low point of hurling personal attacks back (when talking to my friends, of course – not directly to the man in question).

Young people don’t understand things about the INTERNET? I can be pretty sure we know better than the 70-year-old dude with the flip phone! I know I lost on that policy – no surprise – but I got the votes of the young people in the room who really get it.

Yeah, I don’t claim to be proud of that rant.

In the moment, though, I was hurt. And, as the quote up above said, hurt people want to hurt people. So I bitched and moaned and complained to those I knew would back me up. Anything to make myself feel better.

Practicing Empathy

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about that Lizzie Velasquez quote – which I heard in a recent interview she did on Marie Forleo’s podcast – a lot. And, it dawned on me:

In that situation on the delegate floor, I probably wasn’t the only hurt person hurling insults to make myself feel better.

With that quote floating around in my brain – “hurt people hurt people” – I’ve been attempting to put on my empathy glasses and look at it from the man’s point of view. Yes, the man who shortchanged my knowledge by chalking it up to being a simplistic, idealistic young person. What could he have been thinking and feeling at the time?

Maybe he feels as though he’s becoming irrelevant as more and more young people step forward to take the place of influence that used to be his.

Maybe he’s uncomfortable with his level of understanding around technology, and attacking young people is easier than admitting he’s not sure what Net Neutrality is.

Maybe he’s been burned by government regulations so many times that he can’t see a world in which regulations might protect him, instead of hurt him.

Maybe he’s worked with young people in the past who haven’t valued his experience or knowledge, so assumes we’re all like that.

Maybe he’s just forgotten what it’s like to be young and idealistic, after too many hard years of tough times and untrustworthy people.

Sure, he could just be a jerk. But maybe, like me, he feels as though the world doesn’t value what he brings to the table and was looking for any opportunity to gain the higher ground – to feel important and to feel heard.

Letting Go

I stewed on that man’s words for a very long time. Longer than I should have. And the only person that stewing hurt?


By attempting to empathize with his experience, though – whether I’m making it all up to make myself feel better or not – I’ve begun to feel a willingness to forgive. His words don’t feel so offensive. It doesn’t hurt my feelings near as much.

Do I like what he said? Not at all. But it doesn’t have the resonance it had when I was under the notion that I was the only one feeling hurt.

Hurt people hurt people.

Ironically, by seeing the hurt in others, it minimizes the hurt we feel ourselves. I can’t guarantee that I won’t have to learn that lesson over and over again. But, for right now, I feel better.

And I’m letting it go.

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

3 Things I Learned From LeVar Burton

Over Father’s Day weekend, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Denver Comic Con and was lucky enough to be the assistant for celebrity guest LeVar Burton. As a PBS kid with a Trekkie mom, Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation were big parts of my childhood. Suffice it to say, I was pretty darn excited! It was also neat because LeVar is back in the limelight thanks to the Kickstarter he recently started to raise money for Reading Rainbow.

LeVar Burton DCC panel

In one of his panels at Denver Comic Con, LeVar talked about his Reading Rainbow Kickstarter and why he thinks it’s so important to use today’s technology to continue fostering a love of reading in our kids. Photo courtesy of HushComics.com (and make sure to see see their full coverage of LeVar’s Reading Rainbow panel).

Since this really was the first time I’d spent a lot of time with someone famous, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would he be stuck up and not want to talk to me? Or would he be nice and friendly? Well, my experience definitely fell in the latter category and I was lucky enough to learn a few things from Mr. Burton along the way.

3 Lessons I Learned From LeVar Burton

  1. Celebrities really aren’t that different from us.
    Sure, they make a lot more money than I do, I’ll give you that. But, as my dad would say, at the end of the day they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like we do. LeVar enjoyed talking about his daughter and where she’s going to college, how he and his wife love to read together and that his mom was one of his biggest inspirations. When I got a text of a picture of my dog hiding from the vacuum cleaner, he laughed and said his dog actually prefers to chase the vacuum instead of run from it! Whether it’s a celebrity, a company CEO or the barista at your local coffee shop, remember that people have lives outside of their jobs and often times that’s the more interesting part about them.
  2. Use your power to do good in the world.
    LeVar’s passion is teaching kids to love reading and that’s what led him to start Reading Rainbow. Despite the fact that the show’s no longer on the air, he’s looking at ways to reach kids where they are – on iPads and Kindle Fires, on the web and in their classrooms and libraries. Reading doesn’t have to be your passion, but like LeVar has, find out what is and figure out ways to share it with others.
  3. Care about people and do it genuinely.
    I can’t count the number of times LeVar heard from fans just how much Star Trek and Reading Rainbow made a difference to them. When I think about how much he’s heard those things over the last 25+ years, it blows my mind. Still, no matter how many people came up and repeatedly thanked him for the same thing hundreds of people before them had, he took every compliment gracefully, smiled and thanked them for taking the time to stop by. All of us can stand to take a lesson from that.

I’m sure there are celebrities out there that don’t care about their fans and treat people like dirt, but LeVar wasn’t one of them. He showed me that we all have the power to make a difference and be kind to one another – no matter how famous you are.