An essay on the power of empathy.

In writing this Valentine’s Day post, I liked imagining that I was standing in a circle with the fifty or so people I love most in the world. Those people span the spectrum of religious and political beliefs. They voted for lots of different candidates. They care about a range of issues.

But I’ve been troubled lately, and for a long time, really, by the way we’ve failed to talk to and love each other in a real and practical way, across our various lines of difference. The way we’re supposed to as good people and (certainly, if this is what you believe) as Christians.

Put simply, we have forgotten how to be empathetic.

Since you’re reading this, will you stand in the circle with me?

Let’s put the ugliness right in the center, addressing it head on. Everybody just stand here for a second, okay? No one leave. You can go to the bathroom later.

The problem is tribalism exacerbated by social media. Does everyone have a good view from their position in the circle?

First, let’s acknowledge that tribalism on its own isn’t necessarily insidious. It’s a biological human predisposition to crave identity and community, so it makes sense that over millions of years of evolution (insert dirty joke about homo erectus here!), we’ve honed ourselves into particularly social animals who surround themselves with like people. Some will try to argue that this affinity for similar peers in and of itself is an evil, and I’d disagree. I’d say that’s pretty much just biology at work. And sure, ancient man disagreed, came to blows, beat each other in the head with sticks (I’m assuming), but those people in a tribe all had something in common: they needed each other to survive. And so, despite their differences, they learned to live together. The human penscient for tribalism is old news - ancient, even.

What’s new, and what can cause tribalism to quickly become insidious, is our unique ability to connect. Through the magic of the Internet, we now have access to people all over the world. And, weirdly enough, as though we were all in some kind of giant Zuckerberg-ian social experiment, we have used this never-before-held power of connection to do the same damn thing we’ve always done: seek and reach out to people are like us. We can friend or follow whomever we choose. We have found “our people” - those who think like us, talk like us, and want the same things we want. We are comforted by their existence. We are energized by their like-mindedness. We feel validated, affirmed, and (maybe most dangerously) celebrated by the having our beliefs supported.

But the moment they post something we find unsavory, or politically problematic, it takes one click to “mute” that person forever. Never again will we be faced with the ugly reality that we know someone with whom we disagree. And in doing so, we have created as many echo chambers as there are Facebook/Twitter/Instagram users. It’s as though each of us has fallen down our own specifically curated well, deepening with every new think piece and article we consume. I daresay that mine is the most ideologically self-congratulatory generation of all (regardless of what the ideology actually is).

(All the millennials just closed the browser. STAY WITH ME, PEOPLE! I promise I’m getting to the point!)

So, okay. We see the problem.

Now what are its effects?

Put simply, it’s that we can no longer seem to communicate with people who don’t share our viewpoints. It’s like we’re all trying to have a conversation by opening our front doors, screaming our opinions, and then slamming the doors closed just after we’re finished talking, retreating into the familiar with slaps on the back and handshakes from all those who agree with us, telling us what a good point we just made. And if you’re inside the house and dissent? Please. You’re shoved out on the front stoop to fend for yourself like those poor bastards in Bird Box (which I give a solid B, because it stressed me out so much I cried blood).

Being reaffirmed by strangers makes us uniquely confident that our opinions simply must be the right ones. And, sincerely, who can blame us? Public affirmation breeds certainty in our assertions.

In fact, that is exactly what happens every day on Twitter. We publish our opinions (the snarkier, the better), blast our opponents, and then feel self-satisfied for having generated such a sick burn. The more entrenched you are in your camp, the better you fare. There is no room for moderation. There is no room for nuance. It’s black or white, this or that - fraternizing with the enemy is verboden. We live in a time where even our elected leadership hops on Twitter to sass it up, counting on the fact that we’ll love it because it’s novel that someone who’s supposed to be buttoned-up can hang with the cool kids on Twitter. And we do love it. That’s very troubling to me.


My humble submission is that we have to toss our phones into the center of the circle and LOOK AT EACH OTHER IN THE EYEBALLS.

How many stories do we know of people who had very strong anti-gay opinions until their son or daughter came out of the closet, opening their hearts to the reality that gay people are people, deserving of love and respect like anyone else? That’s because when we know someone - when we start to think of someone as a son or daughter or friend or someone’s mom or dad - it’s much more difficult to hate them, or mute them, or call them an ignorant racist or a baby-killing socialist.

In thinking about how to practically talk about empathy, a kind of amorphous concept, one concrete example came to mind.

I hope you’ll indulge me, because I promise that I am not a self-inflated ass who thinks she’s good at everything (for examples of my many flaws see: my weirdly long toes, math, confidence that I am right 100% of the time when arguing with my husband). Normally I’d share a story of someone else doing a good job because I think talking about other people’s strengths is a lot better than talking about my own. But I think it’s important to tell you that it was me, because I want to explain my in-the-moment thoughts and reactions in detail. So this is a good example of putting radical empathy into practice in a way that helped me and (I think) helped X, who you’ll meet in a sec.

In 2012, I was completing my second year of Teach For America in Huntsville, Alabama. Trayvon Martin’s case was all over the news, and George Zimmerman was on trial for murder. The hearing was televised as his verdict was handed down on this particular Friday night. I was visiting Birmingham, sitting in a bar in Homewood with a few friends of mine, one of whom was X. X is a white Republican male, my age, raised in a very conservative Christian denomination. X and I are about as different as it gets when it comes to politics or theology, and I, to be honest, was nervous to be sitting with him as the coverage rang through the bar. We knew what the other thought about this case and the tension was palpable.

My stomach did flips as the judge declared that Zimmerman, who’d murdered a young man that looked like the students I was teaching at the time, had been acquitted.

But I saw, in this moment, a gift sitting before me. X and I were on opposite sides in this moment and would be in many others to come. But I’m not good at ignoring the elephant, so I started asking (not peppering him, but genuinely asking him) why he felt the verdict was just.

His first, and understandably defensive, impulse was to joke around and toss out a couple of remarks that he knew would press my buttons. But I wanted to show him that I was genuinely interested in his opinion, not as some kind of self-righteous case study, but because I cared (and still care) about him as a person. Once the walls were down, he explained his rationale. We disagreed completely, but we still talked.

At the risk of making that story sound like I, a progressive-leaning moderate, descended on this “poor dumb Republican” and showed him the light, let me say plainly that he would not remember this conversation at all. It was a fleeting moment in his life. But in MINE, it was a revelation. It was a rare window into the heart of someone I love but deeply disagree with, and a chance to exercise the empathy muscle that would need to be strong for the rest of my life. I wasn’t trying to change X’s mind - I couldn’t, frankly, even if I’d been trying - I just wanted to understand where he was coming from. This single conversation laid the groundwork for many future conversations between X and me. Once, at a wedding reception, a few good ol’ boys were razzing me about having voted for Hillary Clinton. And even though I knew that X voted straight-ticket different-from-me, and agreed politically with the guys who were giving me a hard time, I was comforted by his presence there. Because of that one conversation in the bar years before, I knew that X knew that I wasn’t just a set of opinions. He knew my heart and my intentions and, most importantly, that I’m just a person, after all. And so is he.

Waiting to respond. Swallowing our maybe-hateful first impulse. Pushing ourselves to see deeper into someone. Asking a clarifying question. Saying when something has hurt our feelings, but being willing to move on and accept an apology. Extending grace. Asking for forgiveness. Assuming the best about other people until proven otherwise.

Really, empathy is about understanding. If anyone wants anything done in this country - if we want to actually MOVE THE BALL - we’re going to have to examine why we stop considering someone worthy of our time when we find out we disagree with them. I think it’s because it’s safer to do that. Less scary. Less risky. Really, though - what’s the worst that could happen?

At the very worst, our worst fears will be confirmed. Some people really are racist. Some conversations aren’t safe to have because of that very fact. And with those people, it is our job (or the jobs of our colleagues in this work - AKA allies rather than the subjects of the hate themselves) to continue trying. Not one single person ever changed their mind because someone else yelled at them about how stupid they were for a while.

At the very best, we discover that the person across from us at the bar whose opinions give us the hot-chests is a guy who is actually up for talking to us about a hot-button topic. And up for listening, too. And in that case, our job is to both talk and listen, to be honest, and to hang in there beyond the inevitable clash of beliefs.

Cultivating empathy is something very concrete and something very hard to do. It takes discipline to train your mind and heart not to balk at something someone says that turns your stomach. To move beyond ourselves. Accepting that we will probably be offended and also inadvertently do some offending throughout the course of a conversation, and deciding to stick with it anyway.

So, anyway. Thanks for standing here. Why don’t we stretch our legs? Like any good meeting, there are snacks, so grab one of those tiny bags of Oreos or Cheez-Its from the snack basket. Maybe pull a slip of paper from this hat of hot-button topics and dive in with whoever goes for the same snack you do.

What’s the worst that could happen?