We are an intensely divided nation. This was increasingly apparent in the news and social media as the recent presidential campaign moved to its conclusion. After the surprise results of the election I am not alone in reflecting on what really divides us and why we were oblivious to the extent of the divide before the election. In part because of the unorthodox character of the president-elect some have suggested that our divisions are now less about Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal – but more about isolationism vs. globalization, more about insulating ourselves within our known comfort zones for security and minimizing personal and national risks vs. whether we are going to be engaged as healthy partners in a broader world.
Whatever the root causes of our divisions, I can’t help but dream that somehow some day we can move to a healthy state of dialectic with opposing views that could actually lead us forward as a less fragmented country.
From this dream I wake to a personal challenge that I am compelled to share here as a national challenge. I believe we need to be talking about empathy, exploring what empathy means outside the thinking and feeling of our affinity groups, and finding ways to develop a personal and national consciousness for it. Perhaps this challenge is a fantasy, certainly the most difficult and the least academic.
Empathy is variously defined as “the identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (Dictionary.com); “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” (Merriam-Webster).
But empathy is more than its dictionary definition. In part it needs to be identified by what it is not. It is something more than sympathy; it goes beyond a sharing of agreement or commiseration, beyond the attempt to affirm harmony of feelings. The dictionary may classify empathy as a noun, but it works like a verb. Empathy is not passive. Particularly when my experience is different from someone it takes consciousness and work. It is the action of a mindset, of a positive intention. It takes the most work when my world view is different from others. In this case it requires non-judgmental open-ended questions I ask of people I don’t agree with to really learn what they think, and to learn their stories that take them to their feelings and positions. Empathy requires the risk of looking outside of myself, the risk of exploring perspectives other than those of my own. It requires honest consideration of information that may not fit into my worldview. Empathy calls for complexity in my thinking, not simple answers – certainly not quick and simple answers that serve only myself and others who share the same feelings about any realities we share.
In its deepest level empathy needs shared contact in some way; it needs some level of shared experience. Learning about someone else’s conditions and experiences can be accomplished through reading or some other detached mode for gathering information, but personal contact and face-to-face communication is where empathy can grow the best and most potently. Empathy is not just recognizing and weighing perspectives other than my own, but being willing to deeply listen to those stories that build the perspectives and world views people have, and then seeing them, if not with acceptance, at least with understanding and insight in that light. Through this pathway in trying to relate with others who view life’s conditions very differently I have the opportunity to expand my world.
And this is hard. Empathy is hard because it is a personal act that can challenge me at my core. It may challenge my habits of thinking, of feeling, of speaking, of my sense of space and security. It is hard at home. I am too often disappointed in my lack of empathy from these habits even with those I love. Yes. It is hard.
The absence of empathy comes from the fear of the Other, perhaps fear of coming too close to what causes others’ anxiety and pain, or coming too close to something in ourselves that may be uncomfortable or that we haven’t explored before. When our own conditions are threatened our natural reaction is to shrink, to isolate, to find others with the same view that reinforce our conditions, that help us rationalize and justify our own thinking. Empathy makes us vulnerable, and we fear that if we try empathy it may not be reciprocated.
In fact, to many, empathy across widely differing perspectives is out of bounds and ridiculous to entertain. For them there are too many important and threatening issues at stake, too many reasons not to seek empathy with others, too much at stake in competing world views. Opposing solutions for life’s issues could overtake us. So much fear through so many lenses in our current world – employment concerns and automation that threatens jobs; a growing sense of personal, national, and international threats to economic, psychological, physical and digital security; growing intensity of competition between climate concerns and access to resource; changing views to a broad array of sexual and relationship identities… Too often the fears we feel define our perspectives.
At a recent event for the Denver Center for International Studies Foundation, author Helen Thorpe spoke about her experience of immigration to the US from Ireland. In reference to her writing about undocumented students she drew the distinction between her experience and that of the students about whom she wrote. My story is not theirs, she said, but my story is a way to relate to theirs. There is always – always – a link somewhere in our stories. Empathy is hard, she said, but we have to try, and when we do we are better for it.
To be clear, empathy never demands us to agree with an opposing view; in fact, we must sometimes resist other viewpoints in spite of consequences that may threaten us. But it calls us to first try having respect for others and differing ways of looking at the world rather than immediately reacting against them. Empathy gives us the chance be partners with the people we have empathy for; it calls us to listen intently with our heart and our head to what others experience, feel, desire. On the surface empathy on a broad scale can lead to more successful cross-cultural communication skills. At deeper levels it may lead us to the kind of dialog and debates that can actually lead to productive action across divides, and even, perhaps, effective partnerships across tribal, country, and ideological lines. I believe empathy can shape the hope of positive engagement in the future of our world. Once we open ourselves to others beyond ourselves our world can become bigger. Empathy is a power that expands my world when I try, and I believe the more we seek it first it gives us a chance for better communities, a better nation and a better world.