This Middle-Aged Guy Tried to Practice Empathy. You'll Never Believe What Happened Next! Ten Things I've Learned by Practicing Empathy
Forgive the click-bait title. This post is so zen that I figured I needed to balance it out with a bit of drama. Roughly a year ago, maybe a little longer, I decided to start really practicing empathy. By that I mean that I felt I was not sufficiently empathetic and literally needed to practice.
This hit me one day when I was reading a political Facebook post that infuriated me. I typed an angry reply. Before posting it, I deleted it--which was good--but I felt a nagging unease. This person was not a bad person. In fact, it was a good person—flawed, like all of us, but fundamentally good. How could I so quickly dismiss this perspective, then?
Based on that experience, I set a rule for myself: I was not allowed to disagree with anything I read on Facebook (even if I didn’t actually post my disagreement) until I had tried to understand why the person thought or felt that way. My rule of thumb was that I had to spend at least as long trying to see the issue from the author's point of view as I would have spent crafting a rebuttal. I’m not 100% with this. There are times I still get really annoyed and angry at things I read. Still, I’ve made progress.
In addition to my rule, I have this simple thought experiment I do. I take whatever the situation is and ask how I'd feel if this situation involved my faith or men or white people or whatever. It's amazing how quickly I am able to see things from a human level, understanding at least a little the emotions involved. It's what Atticus Finch talked about, trying to get inside another person a bit.
This experiment absolutely changed me. Some of the ways it changed me are more personal than I want to share, but there are some general things I've learned. Perhaps I’m unique in that I was not sufficiently empathetic. Maybe everyone else is already super-empathetic. Maybe. But I don’t think so, at least based on what I see.
Before I go any farther let me just clarify that I’m not there yet. I am more empathetic than I was, but I’m not finished and don’t mean to present myself as if I’ve achieved this state. Still, I’ve learned some things on the journey and that’s what I want to talk about. Here, in no specific order, are some of the things I’ve learned.
1. Empathy is hard but can be learned
Humans seem to crave almost unqualified empathy for ourselves. In that sense it seems natural. At the same time, our ability or willingness to extend empathy seems inversely related to our desire for it. In that sense it seems completely unnatural.
I have come to believe that empathy is a natural gift for some people, but that it is a set of behaviors, actions, and beliefs that anyone can practice. Practice makes it a habit.
While I don’t consider myself anywhere as empathetic as I want to be, I am more empathetic than I used to be. Some responses that used to take effort are now habitual, if not quite instinctive. I’m encouraged by this. However, I have to say that trying to be empathetic made me aware of just how unempathetic I was. Sort of the same principle that you don’t realize how much sugar you eat until you try to stop eating it.
2. A lot of people who talk about being empathetic are not empathetic.
I have come to believe that, sadly, empathy is given a lot of lip service, but that it's usually a club used to pound ideological foes. Some of the people who call loudest for empathy are supremely unempathetic to anyone who disagrees with them.
Empathy is really an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t be empathetic with people you like or agree with, then turn it off for people you don’t like or find ideologically un-simpatico. I think that is what most people do. It’s certainly what I found myself habituated to doing. That's very human, very normal, but that’s not empathy.
3. Empathy has nothing to do with agreement.
I have noticed that even people who technically understand the definition of the word are strangely unsettled by the thought of showing empathy for those with whom they disagree. It is as if we have the idea that somehow empathy is weakness, or that showing any sort of understanding for the thoughts and feelings of those we disagree with will pollute us somehow.
I have absolutely no proof of this, but I have a hunch that as we have become more and more ideologically charged, and as more and more issues have become more and more divisive, empathy is much less favorably looked upon than it once was (although, again, we pay it lip service—largely when we want others to understand us).
I have really had to stretch to be empathetic to some people and some perspectives. There are ideas and people who irritate, annoy, and offend me. There are some ideas I think are totally misguided, even dangerous. I haven’t necessarily changed my mind about these things. Empathy has not necessarily made me agree with everyone. In fact, something interesting happened. Empathy has burned away some of my less-informed opinions or beliefs. There are things I believed that were based largely on my own experience, or where I was born, or who I was with, or that sort of thing—fairly superficial beliefs. A lot of these have been burned away.
However, empathy has helped me find my real core values. The beliefs, opinions, and convictions I still hold are stronger than ever, durable and much deeper.
But even where I disagree—emphatically—empathy has helped me understand the other side. It is possible to be empathetic and still strongly opposed to something. It is very difficult, though, to be empathetic and simultaneously fear or be angry with someone. Thus, opposition is much less personal.
4. Empathy is complicated
This leads me to the next point. Receiving others empathetically makes the world very complicated. When you are trying to understand why people think and feel things the way they do, you suddenly find a lot of common ground for understanding, if not agreement. Empathy breaks down a lot of comfortable, pre-existing boundaries and stereotypes. There are cultural issues which I still feel one way about, but having really listened to someone who disagrees, I see why they feel the way they do. It requires me to think in different terms than us vs. them. So much of our current discourse in this country is founded on us vs. them, far more than I realized.
I used to see political parties, figures, and organizations as good vs. bad, us vs. them, heroes vs. villains. Practicing empathy has changed that. I now see people: humans, filled with a swirling maelstrom of hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses, and lots of contradiction.
Empathy is nearly fatal to dogma, platitudes, easy answers, and simplistic ways of looking at the world. In that way, it can be frightening and disorienting. I can no longer simply dismiss ideas or perspectives I don’t like. I now see I used to do a lot more of that than I’d like to admit, even as I thought I was fairly open-minded and rational. Ironically, in trying to be more empathetic, which is feeling-based, I find I am much more open-minded, which is rational and logical.
5. Empathy reduces fear and anger
I have come to the conclusion that our current political and cultural debates in the U.S. are principally driven by fear and anger. We try to hide that, and there are some principled exceptions, but a tremendous amount of what we do and advocate for is driven by what we fear.
Working for empathy changes this. Understanding the fundamental human feelings that inform people’s opinions and proclivities makes it difficult to be afraid of them.
6. Empathy makes it boring to judge
I used to get angry at what I thought was hypocrisy. I still do, but my definition of hypocrisy has changed. I am prone to be much more charitable and to give the benefit of the doubt more often. What I used to see as hypocrisy, I now frequently see as human weakness, the natural result of a flawed being aspiring to something greater. There will always be a mismatch when people try to be better than they currently are.
I don’t judge people nearly as much. I’m not saying I’m perfect at this, but I’m much more able to give people credit for what they are trying to do and am less worried about their lapses. I find I am much less interested in trying to evaluate people. To go back to the sugar analogy, after you have been off of it for a while, you stop craving it. I believe empathy is similar. I don’t pretend that I’m somehow virtuous for not being as quick to judge. It’s just that it's increasingly uninteresting. I just don’t crave it the way I used to.
7. Empathy is simply understanding the human emotion that motivate action and belief
Empathy can be difficult to practice consistently, but it’s not complicated. It is simply the act of saying, “I understand why she feels that way.” Or “I can see why he thinks that.” I have seen over and over that so many of our loudest, most controversial disagreements are based on the same human emotions.
8. Empathy enhances clear thinking
It's been recently documented that, while we like to pretend otherwise, humans are profoundly irrational. We usually come up with the opinion, generally based on some value or emotion, then backtrack to justify it. We do what we want, or what we believe is right, then try to create a rational framework.
I mentioned this above, but empathy allows clearer, more rational thinking. This really surprised me, but it makes sense. Empathy allows us not to have a dog in the fight, or at least not as much. It de-claws fear and anger. In this regard, it really does allow for less-muddled thinking. I feel I am much more open to evidence and more persuadable on any number of things than I used to be. This goes, I think, back to the fact that so much of our discourse these days is based on fear, anger, and us vs. them thinking. Again, I am intrigued by the fact that this fundamentally emotional mindset has made me more rational. That's an interesting paradox.
9. Sometimes empathy is most difficult with small differences
Ironically, some of the people who still anger or annoy me the most are people who share common values and ideas with me. We have many overlapping beliefs or opinions, only differing in relatively small places. For some reason, it is harder to consistently be empathetic with these people than it is with people with whom I differ greatly on big issues. I don't know if this is some weird quirk of my own or if it's human nature. I'm still trying to understand it. I have a theory, but need to think more about it.
10. Empathy is a gift to myself
I feel that I am much healthier, much more at peace with myself and with others than I used to be. I didn’t expect that. To the extent I thought about it at all, I think I probably thought that being empathetic was a gift I could give other people. I have come to discover it is an enormous gift to myself.
I am calmer and more tranquil. I feel I am much less susceptible to sky-is-falling sorts of alarmism, much less susceptible to fear-based political appeals and less-prone to be afraid of people. That’s not say I’ve become Pollyanna. One of the things that is most surprising to me is that I feel much more clear-eyed. I’m not unaware of threats or dangers or real problems. In fact, I feel simultaneous more aware of these things, but less prone to brooding, fear, and catastrophizing.
As I said, I don’t pretend that I’m done with this project. I’m not. In fact, I’ve realized just how hard it is to be consistently empathetic. Consistent effort has pointed to how very far from the ideal I am.
It has also helped me see that it is worth pursuing. I believe it’s the right thing to do. I also find it has tremendous personal benefits.
My heart has been really troubled and full lately. I've been thinking about this moment in our time, wondering and worrying about so much. I spent some time writing tonight and this is what came out. I can't do everything. But I can do what I can do. Warning: It's very long.
Dear Child of Color*,
I want you to know something. I want you to know you are welcome in my classroom. I will do all I can to receive you with love and respect. I will not make assumptions about you. I’ll challenge the narrative that casts you as being less innocent or more aggressive than your peers.
There is so much going on right now, so many burdens your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents have had to carry. I am so sorry, dear child, that you still carry them, that this is the world we live in.
Whatever storms break outside, I hope my classroom will be a refuge. I hope you’ll understand that in my classroom, you have value and dignity. You are loved. You have a soul, a heart, and a mind, and I will do my best to engage you soul to soul, heart to heart, and mind to mind. I know I don’t understand what you experience; I know enough to realize that. But I want you to know that whatever may separate us, I love my students, and you are my student. For whatever that may be worth, it is yours and it always will be.
Dear Muslim child,
I know what it is like to have people misunderstand and misconstrue my faith. For many years my faith was been seen as being dangerous and un-American. Politicians wanted to stop my people from leaving their countries and coming here.
In the early 19th century the Governor of Missouri actually drafted an order citing the need to drive my people from the state or exterminate them. I know what it is like to live a faith whose practices push you to swim against some cultural currents. I know what it’s like, a little at least, to be seen as foreign and strange, to have things you think are sacred mocked and demeaned.
You are welcome in my classroom. I will do all I can to help you feel safe, to not feel foreign or strange. I’ll try to learn your songs, I’ll try to help teach your peers to sing them as well, even as I hope you’ll sing with us the songs of other cultures, peoples, and faiths who also came to these shores, people who ultimately did find refuge and sanctuary from storms. The good news is that America has fulfilled so many promises in the past. I believe she will continue.
I want to be a safe place for you. I hope my classroom is a sanctuary and that you always feel welcome. I hope you feel that you are home, that you belong. You do.
Dear Latinx child:
I have read about taunts you receive, chants you hear directed at you, whether or not your parents were born here. I have read about the fear many families feel as they leave in the morning, wondering whether something as small as a traffic stop might become the incident that could tear the family apart.
I’m sorry you are caught in this trap, where people cast suspicious glances at you, where you are made to bear the weight of a long, acrimonious dispute. I can’t imagine what it must be feel like to be the proxy for hotly-debated social issues.
I want you to know that in my class you belong. You are one of us. You are valued and celebrated, regardless of where your parents or grandparents were born. In my classroom I hope you feel that you are the only part of your story that matters.
I hate the ugliness around us. I sometimes weep when I think of the messages that bombard you. I am so sorry for it all, and yet I admire the strength you show as you rise above it. I will try to help you gain confidence in your intelligence, a conviction of your worth and potential and the knowledge that you are vastly—infinitely—more than you see in movies and advertisements and magazines and in so many other ways. I am sorry you are growing up in a sick culture. I’ll try to make sure you feel respected, heard, and safe, and I’ll try to celebrate all you do, all you think, and all you are as a human being.
I hate the way our society demeans and objectifies women. It’s an ugly, ugly thing. I also hate what our society does to men, the way they infantilize, mock, and demonize. I wish you were not growing up in a world where adding the prefix “man” to something was pejorative and “manly” wasn’t a joke. I will try to help you develop true confidence, and I’ll try to help you be free to be who you really are. I understand that adolescence is different for you than your female peers, but that doesn’t make it—or you—bad or wrong. It’s just different. You are not distractions to be managed. Yes, puberty means that sometimes it’s harder to reach you or guide your behavior—but that means I need to try harder. It means that if I’m any kind of a teacher, I’ll figure out ways to bring you along.
Dear other children--those who may struggle with anxiety, depression, sexual identity, poverty, family problems, and any number of other difficulties, I know that not every burden is visible, not all pain is obvious. Goodness knows, adolescence can be hard enough as without anything else thrown in. I grew up in pretty favorable circumstances, but I had a funny name, was pudgy and incredibly awkward. I couldn’t do anything that had any sort of coolness. In fact, the cooler an activity was, the less able I was to do it. The nerdier an activity was, the better I was and the more I liked it. So I think I can remember enough to understand just a little bit, enough to want to help.
I can’t fix everything in the world. Sadly, I can’t fix much at all. But I’ll do what I can. I’ll try to build your confidence, try to help you see what a bright, brilliant light you are. I’ll try to challenge and nurture you so that you can grow up and meet the fullness of your potential—and I’ll try to make sure you know I see that potential. I’ll try to give you all the patience and all the encouragement I would want my own child to have.
Please know that if my words of love are to mean anything at all, I must discipline you. I’ll expect you to do your best. I will challenge you, for I do you no favor by letting you slide by. Life is demanding. Trust no one who expects nothing of you; they are not your friend. There’s much we can’t control about our lives, but I believe the effort to reach our fullest potential is always a choice and helps attract good things. It also makes us happier people.
While I expect much of you, please know I also expect much of myself. I will give you credit for your efforts, and will try to look past your mistakes. I will try to give you the benefit of the doubt and apologize when I’m wrong. I hope you’ll do the same for me.
I can’t promise perfection, for I am growing too. I am human; therefore, I am flawed. My aspirations sometimes exceed my ability. But I promise my sincere and ongoing efforts. I will take comfort in what I will tell you when your voice cracks or you sing a wrong note: the only way to avoid mistakes is not to try. To sing is to take a risk. The greater the reward, the greater the risk. The more complex the concert, the more practice is required.
Whatever my flaws and failings, please know that next to my own family, teaching you is where I find my meaning. I will define my success by how well I reach you. I believe I will one day answer to God for how I treat you. That doesn’t mean I’ll always succeed, but I will always try.
You won’t understand what I’m about to say for many years, perhaps not ever, really, unless you become a teacher. Once you walk through that classroom door, you became part of my heart, part of my life. That will not change or fade with time. You will forget me long before I forget you, before I stop thinking of, worrying about, and praying for you. There’s a form of love that we don’t have a very good word for in our language. It’s not anything I can easily explain, a teacher's love is real. It's unconditional, it’s both fierce and soft, and it’s remarkably enduring. For whatever it may be worth, it is yours.
(Yes, I want you to use that title. I earned it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But it changed my life, and education can change your life as well. It's the greatest equalizer we have).
* After some consultation with some friends, I opted for this term as opposed to “African-American” or something else. I realize "People of Color" refers to other groups and communities beyond African-Americans. However, given this very tense moment in our country’s history, I wanted to be as respectful as possible. This was the term my friends advised me would most likely be the most acceptable to most people.
How an 8th grade fundraiser reminded me not to over-parent, intervene, or try to prevent my children from failing.
You may know (or you may not) that I write a parenting newsletter. It's based on my observations as a parent and teacher. As the father of five I seem to have made almost every mistake one can, although, I manage to devise completely new mistakes with subsequent children. And in the rare cases where I didn't make the mistake personally, I have likely seen another parent make it in my career as an educator. I decided someone should benefit from all those mistakes. Hence the newsletter.
I wrote the following piece for the newsletter, but it is an important enough issue that I thought I would share it with a wider audience as well. If you wish to sign up for the newsletter you may do so here. This is an experience I had that reminded me how important it was to let kids take risks and fail without intervention.
Earlier this year some of my students had a really bad idea for a special initiative. It was obviously going to be a colossal failure. I was tempted to intervene and stop them, but decided instead to let them learn a lesson from their imminent failure.
One of my responsibilities at school is serving as the advisor for a committee of eighth students charged with raising money. The funds they raise pay for various items, including a gift the graduating class gives back to the school. The work of this committee is challenging and it keeps us all very busy, trying to raise the needed funds.
Even more challenging is the fact that this committee is specifically designed as a leadership opportunity for eighth graders. Thus, while the immediate goal is to raise money, the overarching objective is to help develop leaders.
Additionally, the committee changes each year as students graduate and move on. Consequently, every year brings a new learning curve and one of my main responsibilities is finding a diplomatic way of helping them re-think a problematic ideas, or guiding them to see that something is impractical or unworkable.
A few months back the students had a new fundraising idea. With my greater understanding and experience, I knew at once that it would not work. I tried to nudge my committee away from the idea, but they were very determined to try. Since it wasn’t dangerous, illegal, unethical or otherwise problematic I finally approved it. While I knew it would be a dismal fundraising failure, I hoped they might learn some good lessons.
I sat back and waited, making mental notes on a speech to deliver when the results bombed. With gentle sympathy in my voice, I planned to say something like, “I’m so sorry this didn’t work the way you thought it would. I am proud of you for trying and glad you were willing to think out of the box. I imagine there are some good lessons we can draw.”
I imagined a wonderful teaching moment. With sympathy and a bit of wry humor I’d leave them humbled but hopeful. I was imagining Atticus Finch mixed with Mother Theresa with a touch of Andy Griffith thrown in.
To my astonishment—and that of most other adults—the fundraising idea succeeded beyond anything I would have ever imagined. We made significantly more with this fundraiser than we had with several other fundraisers combined.
I later told my boss that I was giving myself the speech I’d prepared for the students, telling myself this was a great opportunity to draw some good lessons. He told me he was doing the same.
There has been a lot written recently about how important it is not to over-parent, to not intervene and solve every problem. In order to grow, kids need to experience struggle and even failure. I believe that very much. We rob our children of future strength when we intervene, organizing and directing every aspect of their lives.
But this experience reminded me of another reason not to intervene: we actually don’t know everything. While this particular initiative worked out well, a lot of other ideas over the years did fail, and there were times I was correct in my forecast. The trick, however, is that one can’t know when the wonderful surprise success will come. Sometimes our intervention will not prevent the failure or disappointment; it may actually cause it. Had I followed my impulse, this would have been the case with my committee.
Adult intervention to prevent failure and struggle can be problematic because it may also prevent adolescents from experiencing truly amazing success.
This experience reminded me that one of the best things I can to help my own children succeed is to give them the freedom to try, fail, and solve their own problems. Not intervening (unless there is serious danger) can be unsettling. It can feel like cutting the safety rope that keeps them from falling. But that rope can also be a tether, keeping them from reaching their fullest potential. By giving them the opportunity to fail, I allow them to learn important lessons when they fall. But I’m also freeing them to soar to far greater heights than I had imagined.
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Thank you to all who served and all who sacrificed! As I sit in my quiet backyard this morning I am aware that our peace has come with a high price. My grandmother lost her brother on D-Day. She was never the same; it haunted her for the rest of her life. Thank you to the families who lost loved ones.
A few weeks ago I was with students in Washington D.C. The Vietnam Memorial really caught their attention, which is interesting since it’s so stark. They spent a lot of time there and we had to pull them away. Many of them were fascinated by the various artifacts and mementos people leave at the wall for their loved ones. One that I found particularly moving was a high school wrestling trophy. This young man was voted “Most Improved” in 1966. Only a few years later, he was killed in action. The students really seemed to think about what that meant. Just a few words but it captures so well the tragedy of a life cut down so early. As we left, I saw of few of them pick clover blossoms to place on the wall. They had nothing else but wanted to honor the sacrifice they sensed. I whipped out my phone to get a picture because I thought that small gesture was perfect. Thank you again to those who served and gave all they had. And thank you to their families.
As a parent who also happens to be a teacher I straddle two worlds, and each informs the other. This year those two worlds aligned even more than usual and it has me more grateful than ever for the teachers who work with my children. Let me give one small example.
Every May, I leave to help chaperone a group of eighth grade students on a trip to Washington D.C., the culmination of their time at our school. This follows a very busy few weeks at school, physically and emotionally demanding. As usual, I went again this year, but this time one of the students was my son, so the trip brought together the two strands of my life, helping me see with a richer perspective.
In the time we visit D.C., our group wanders through the monuments, memorials, and museums, encountering hundreds of other students having the same field trip. They are obvious and easy to see, often wearing brightly colored t-shirts (helpful for trying to spot wandering students from a distance). In every group there are teachers like me, outnumbered by at least fifteen-to-one. They are even easier to spot than the sea of children around them, rising up from this turbulent adolescent sea like the Rock of Gibraltar.
No matter their size or shape or specific age there is a common characteristic: tired eyes and a slightly haggard, bedraggled appearance unique to D.C. trip chaperones. They walk briskly and energetically as they hustle their young charges along, but in moments of stillness, standing in lines for example, there is a sudden slump of the shoulders and a squint of the eyes as weariness catches up.
During our trips, I frequently make make eye contact with another chaperone. Sometimes it’s when we wearily flop down on a bench in the Visitor’s Center at Arlington National Cemetary. Sometimes it’s in the gift shop at Gettysburg when either they or I tell a student something that is as obvious to us as it is elusive to the student: “No! You can’t buy eight pounds of fudge,” “Please don’t spill water on the signed books right there." You hear the teachers saying with a resigned weary voice, "Stay to the right! We are not the only one on the sidewalk!” Or, my personal favorite, "Stop body-surfing down the Lincoln Memorial!" Often these useful warnings come as one or the other of us is trying to point out the significance of a particular site, sometimes sharing a memory of an event we lived through--something we thought of a as a current event that is now considered history.
I sing these teachers, tired-eyed and shoulder-slumped, adults who form rocks of reliability in the changing seas of adolescence. I sing of these quiet heroes who leave home and family to herd puberty-stricken children through our nation’s most sacred sights, hoping that something seen or said will kindle a spark that will keep freedom’s lamp burning bright in the next generation.
You can say it’s their job, and that would be true. But there is no way of paying them for all they do. The hours they spend and the energy they give cannot be counted. The effort of trying to help explain the magnitude and meaning of the Vietnam wall while keeping the peace between feuding girls or trying to redirect belching boys to look at the Constitution is not something that can be totted up in a ledger.
All of these teachers are human and, therefore, flawed. They each have weaknesses as people and professionals. One can note and discuss these easily. Of course, weaknesses can also be found in the lives of the famous figures whose statues and monuments these educators point out. Certainly human failings are also discernible in the powerful figures that rush past through D.C.’s hallowed halls or diagonal avenues, surrounded by aides, motorcades, and the trappings of power.
I sing the teachers who have no aides and no motorcades, surrounded only by energetic, noisy teens. They call out for students to leave space on the sidewalk for other pedestrians and government workers on their lunch-hour runs. Like the security personnel one often encounters, they are always scanning their environs, watching over charges who do not always welcome the vigilance.
I sing of these teachers, heroes of our Republic, patiently explaining what this monument means and why it matters while groaning inwardly at all the emails that are piling up in their absence. Their work is demanding, but not dramatic. It is not always even obviously successful. But they are there, and their presence matters. While the world may little note what they say and do, they are on the ground, trudging through rain and heat, explaining self-government while watching for hurt feelings, food allergies and homesickness. They are there.
They are there, meaning they are not at home. Not with their families or their hobbies or their small comforts. They distribute meds and try to be aware of who is feeling left out, making sure everyone gets something to eat and has someone with whom to eat. These teachers often use the small breaks that come to solve their own problems--giving instructions to babysitters, dog walkers, counseling older children via text or refereeing fights from a few thousand miles a away.
That ought to matter to all of us, for it is from the ranks of these students that tomorrow’s leaders will be drawn. It is those students who will one day bustle through the halls of power and eventually occupy the motorcades. It is those students who will make the choices that will lead to honor or infamy. It is those students who must pick up Liberty’s banner when their teachers and parents are old and spent. Because it must be the students tomorrow, it makes what the teachers do today all the more important.
With all my heart and voice, I sing the teachers who care. Who walk. Who explain and watch and herd. Who are there. As a citizen, I salute you. As a parent I thank you.
I talked recently to a friend of mine. He's English, but has lived in both Australia and the U.S. He thinks highly of America, but said something interesting. He said that Americans struck him as particularly fearful lot. He thought it odd, indeed, he was almost incredulous, that the most powerful country in the world was so full of fear.
He was speaking mostly of geo-political matters, but his comment went along with something I've been thinking about lately.
If you've read my blog before you likely know that one of my own greatest fears is that we are slowly tearing ourselves apart as a nation. We seem to have lost much of the common ground that once allowed us to have different opinions. Bitter, acrimonious division seems to be the rule now. I don't know how long a country can last like that. Yes, I know there have been contentious times in the past. This seems different to me, and I find it alarming. Perhaps the thing that worries me most is that more and more people seem to see a lack of empathy with others to be virtuous, something to be celebrated.
I've wondered, with growing anxiety, what we could still have in common. Then I happened upon an article about the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's a chilling premise--religious fundamentalists stage a coup and impose a system of grinding oppression, reducing once-independent women to slaves.
As might be expected, those with a more progressive bent find the series to be both excellent and chilling, while those who are more conservative find it to be pretentious and paranoid.
This reaction reminded me of another cultural phenomenon that elicited the same reactions but on different sides of the aisle. Back in the 90s, there was a very popular series of books, the Left Behind series. Written by an evangelical pastor and speaker, this was about a group of Christians persecuted by a one-world government bent on their destruction. It was first a book series, then some movies. These books were a big deal to conservative Christians, while they largely drew snickers and scoffs from more liberal, secular sorts.
Full disclosure: I have not read either Atwood's book or the Left Behind books. I haven't watched the new series based on her book and my only experience with the film adaptation of Left Behind was about ten minutes of the film adaptation once while home sick. I was flipping through cable channels (as I recall, it involved poisoning Bibles and snowmobiles kidnapping Kirk Cameron. But I could be wrong. Like I say, I was sick.)
My point in writing is not to laud or criticize either of these works. And if you comment, please be courteous. People can have different literary and film tastes.
My point is that both secular progressives and conservative Christians embraced a series that was based on their deepest fears. As my friend observed, we Americans really are a fearful lot, sure that the people in Red or Blue states want to take away our freedoms. Clickbait headlines to the contrary, I think either of these dystopic futures are not exactly imminent, even if we don't like specific current developments. If we take counsel from our fears, we can find conspiracies and frightening omens in almost anything.
Converting bogeymen and nightmares into entertainment isn't new. Ghost stories, Grimm's fairy tales, and any number of other storytelling traditions go way back. We have always coped with the shadows around us by confining them into the confines of a story.
Progressives scoffed at the ideas that shaped Left Behind and the certainty many on the right had that the Obama years were the opening lines that would lead us into this nightmare; conservatives think it's ridiculous to imagine Massachusetts as a giant fundamentalist cult and don't think it likely that even if he is a serial harasser, Donald Trump is going to lead us into this future.
Right now, you are likely rallying arguments for why your side is right, why your fears are different. The other guys are demonstrably hysterical and irrational. Your fears, by golly, are the fears of any right-thinking, intelligent person with half a functional brain who is not evil and stupid.
Can we set that aside for a minute? Don't focus on the content of our fears, and let's not shout at each other about whose fears are more rational or likely. Let's focus on the underlying human emotion. Fear is fear. It is a terrible thing, something none of us want.
These books/film adaptations remind us that we all fear. Red, blue, purple--we fear for our loved ones and ourselves. We fear what the future holds. Most frightening, we don't fear foreign armies, we fear each other. And that is frightening. Truly frightening.
When I was a kid, I worried about nuclear attacks and Russians parachuting into the country and quietly taking over. I didn't fear what other Americans would do if they got in charge. But now, many of us do.
Ironically, this fear leads to anger and hate, which perhaps then increase our polarization. Should any of these terrible situations ever come about, I suspect it will be because we so feared the other that we struck preemptively. Fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at some point.
But that does not need to happen. My hope is that we can look at each other and realize that we all know fear. We are human, at the end of the day, not so very different in the ways that matter most. And our fear, while different in form and shape, feels the same. Perhaps if nothing else we can start to find some sort of humanity in the other, developing some empathy here. A sort of compassionate confederation where we retain our disagreements but see the other side as acting on emotions that also stir us.
And perhaps, by doing so, we can prevent the worst dystopias from every coming about.
Several years ago I started writing posts based on my observations teaching and parenting middle school students. I called this series Middle School Monday and they got a lot of traffic, shares, and comments. Then I got busy and blogging couldn't be a priority. I've decided to start doing these posts again, but I'm doing them as a newsletter. I usually send one or two posts a week. If you want to sign up, you can do that here.
Many years ago I got a bad case of mono. I didn't know I had it and I likely had it for months before being diagnosed. I found out about it only when my body crashed and stopped working.
I would love your help choosing a tagline for an ad. It's for The Missing Heir. One of the main characters is created to be a monster, and his instincts drive him to kill. When he meets Tallie, he starts to resist those instincts, triggering and intense battle inside of himself. He wonders if, being a monster, he can ever be anything else. Even if he resists the impulse, does the fact that he has it make him bad? At any rate, I'm trying to find a good tagline for this ad. I'll use the picture above, although it will be darkened to hide most of his face except his eye, which will glow a little.
Here are a few suggestions. Which do you like? Do you have a better idea?
1. Can a monster stop being a monster?"
2. Is a monster made by his nature or his choices?
3. Does evil define a monster who wants to do good?"
4. If a monster hates being evil, is he still a monster?"
5. Can a sliver of light change a heart full of darkness?"
6. Can a monster choose to be good?"
7. Good vs. evil, light vs. dark, Monster against himself. Who will win?"
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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