Maya Angelou – It is almost impossible to grow up. Most people just get older.
Rancor for the ‘other’ has been an effective tool of the Right to mobilize supporters. Many adults, harboring unresolved anger and mistrust look to strong-man saviors. Exploiting fear, these “saviors” maintain most in socio-economic stress and propel us all to potential global destruction. Those people, on the other hand, who hope for equity and sustainability offer the Left significant opportunity. Organizing them would be based instead on a shared empathy. But empathy requires emotional development, and that is not easy to accomplish.
For much of life I have been angry – angry at injustice, greed and/or incompetence. I have felt both personally and politically marginalized. Periodically, unkind outbursts would occur, but I rationalized them with the belief that I knew better. Eventually, I realized that the self-centered child in me must not control the compassionate adult that also resides within. If I am to be the change that we need, I must feel and act with empathy.
Does the inability to empathize start with a resistance to feeling the suffering of others? Do racism and prejudice encourage this? I believe so. I also believe that festering anger diverts emotional growth away from compassion and towards simplistic, selfish behavior.
Empathy is understanding so intimate that the feelings and motives of one are readily comprehended by another. Many people feel too burdened to give space to other people’s suffering, but the irony is that when we do, we help relieve our own suffering while reducing theirs. However, the current political discourse banks on the fact that anger is more comfortable than compassion and quite able to be used to maintain status quo.
How do we develop more empathy? What does it look like?
Empathy is grounded in mutual trust. James Baldwin called for faith in the “evidence of things not seen”. He believed we should live life with the assumption that a sense of decency might yet live in the American soul. He advocated for cultivating a sense of community through affection and understanding for ourselves and for each other.
Myles Horton of the Highlander School believed that the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions. He also asserted that people often don’t know that they have the solutions and act in ways contrary to solving the problems. Consequently, for many decades he brought teachers who listened with vulnerability and humility together with disadvantaged people, resulting in progressive change locally and nationally.
Adrienne Rich uses poetry to develop community connections. She organizes workshops for primarily low-income, African-American single mothers that document their lives. The process facilitates the transition from “I” to “We” without extinguishing others’ worldviews. As they accept the suffering of others, they also accept the responsibility for shared action. This integration of acceptance and responsibility is a true sign of spiritual as well as practical progress. The writing workshops have evolved into a school / community partnership that has improved the behavior and academic performance of students as it has reinvigorated the neighborhood.
Community develops through actions that facilitate mutually beneficial connections between people who are vulnerable to each other. The progressive movement grows as our individual humility and tenderness toward each other builds. Our speech should echo this development. Yes, we have excuses to be indignant or callous. But, more importantly, we have better reasons to be kind and sensitive to the feelings and motives of the people we hope to mobilize.