A smart man might firmly believe he is right. A wise man understands that he could be wrong.
Do you know anyone who believes they have the world figured out and are right about everything all the time?
Is that a silly question?
I know a lot of people who fit that description. Some of them are very intelligent, good, well-meaning people. But they hold fast to their ideologies. They plug into that segment of the media machine that validates their world view and tune out all other input as invalid–can you say fake news? They are intelligent enough that their beliefs are likely not completely off-base, but they focus so much on their narrow agenda-driven personal narrative that they miss the big picture. Their minds are closed so tightly that the light of day–other perspectives–can’t reach them. Without the light of day nothing grows.
Empathy is in short supply in our nation today. In order for empathy to grow, it needs plenty of that light provided by other perspectives.
I came to this realization slowly over the course of my life. I grew up in a fairly progressive Christian family attending a fairly conservative evangelical Protestant church. By the time I came of an age where I was becoming polically aware, I began to see the dichotomy between the words in red in the Bible and the political rhetoric that was sometimes coming down from the pulpit. I can remember always being uncomfortable whenever a preacher started in on a message of a political nature. The politics embedded in some of the sermons I was hearing seemed to leave precious little room for empathy yet, the message of Jesus seemed full of empathy.
Eventually, I succumbed to the messages I was hearing from the pulpits and by the time I was in my 30s, I had become a full-fledged, card-carrying Conservative. If I wanted to be a part of the church, it seeemed that was the way I was supposed to be. I was part of a team–that much felt good–but empathy was missing, resulting in a stinging inner bitterness. My team had to be right about everything, so if I was going to be a member in good standing, I had to shut out other perspectives–anything less and I was inviting doubt to creep into my faith.
But I had too many people I greatly respected, including some in my own family–a family I had begun to worry about–who had very different perspectives. How could they all be so wrong about everything? I wrote about my transformation in an article called Confessions of a Constitutional Christian–Erring on the Side of Love, click on the blue title link if you’d like to read more.
For now, suffice to say that I eventually found my way out of the mindset that a Christian must be politically conservative. That process becomes much easier when you focus on the message Christians should be most concerned with–the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. If you can read about what Christ did and said and label him a Conservative, I’d need to sit down and have you explain that to me real slowly.
So I moved left.
But I stay in touch with the reasonable Right, as well. That’s the thing–if we are going to find empathy, we can’t just look in one direction. Let’s be honest, there is a lack of empathy on the left, as well–perhaps that had something to do with the results of the last presidential election….
Empathy becomes much easier when you let go of the need to be 100% correct. We must begin to understand that nobody has all the answers. By the same token, few people are completely wrong, either.
Humility is a prerequiste condition for empathy to grow. So is the willingness to listen. Hear what people with other perspectives have to say. If you can at least understand why it is they believe as they do, you are allowing empathy to grow.
Empathy allows me to accept LGBTQ people as simply folks, like me, struggling through life–no room for judgement.
Empathy allows me to see both sides in a controversial police shooting. I can relate to a scared cop trying to do his job and I can relate to a citizen who carries deep emotional scars and fears for his life.
Empathy allows me to understand that my whiteness gives me the priviledge of not having to carry around some of the baggage that my black brothers and sisters bear daily.
Empathy allows me to accept that, for some women, an abortion might be an unfortunate, but necessary decision–hers to make, not mine–between her and God–no room for judgement.
Emathy frees me from being bound by a D or an R when I vote–I can make an informed judgement based on an individual, not a party.
The first step to empathy is understanding that you may be not always be right. Listen to other perspectives. You may never agree–consensus is overrated–but if empathy is allowed in, hate is forced out.