Even When You Think They're Wrong
by Daniel D. Maurer
Perhaps the best metaphor for this past week is one of an amusement park roller coaster. If you’ve ever ridden one, you know the experience.
You’re sitting beside your friend in one of the train’s cars. As it climbs the last hill, you hear the tick-tick-ticking of the train climbing the final leg before its eventual nosedive. When the clamor of the ticking chain ceases, and the crest of the hill brings the fall into view, you and your friend can have one of two responses:
- Sheer terror.
- Out-and-out delight.
I’ll tip my hand and share with you that although I love roller coasters, my experience this past week was one of terror. The hill in front of me seems awfully precipitous, and uncertain at best. It goes more to the fact that I do not believe the current President Elect to embody the best ideals of the United States.
In what little conversation I have had in real life as well as on social media, generally the response I hear first from others is: Well . . . the alternative wasn’t any better! We needed a change.
Perhaps they’re right and change is needed. There’s no doubt that many (especially in the heartland of the Midwest) have suffered greatly at least from an economic standpoint. But no matter how much change is needed, I don’t believe an islamaphobic, misogynistic, narcissistic, sociopathic demagogue is a leader worth following, regardless how distasteful the alternative seems.
I have striven and will continue to aim to shape Transformation is Real to be as apolitical as possible, while still pointing to the fact that seeking justice for others is a change worth reporting . . . and embodying.
And with that I'm venturing into uncertain territory myself. I'm convinced, however, that this is a transformation worth writing about.
As I write this short reflection, I have spent the past day-and-a-half at my parents’ home in rural Minnesota. The silence for reflection is good, but the open time has led my mind back to the fears that still remain:
- I’m scared for my children’s future.
- I’m scared that people whom I dearly love will suffer.
- I’m scared that there might be people who read this and will turn me off because of their own convictions.
- I’m scared of uncertainty.
- I’m scared of being scared.
In my long-term recovery from addiction and depression, I’ve found that fear and shame often go hand in hand. Shame thrives off fear and encourages paralysis. Fear builds because of uncertainty. Uncertainty then feeds back into fear and inaction, because it is an unknown threat. And shame to others feels powerful, because we see how effective it is to ostracize and label the "other."
The dynamic between fear and shame has been solidly established. Dr. Steven Stosny, a marriage therapist who treats couples for anger and relationship problems, writes that empathy is nearly always the way around this shame-fear dynamic:
It seems to me that the current political dynamic in the United States (and abroad too—think Brexit) is because a large portion of a country's populace do not feel they are being listened to, or even seen. It's like we have one group that is sighted, and another that is blind. (I'll let you decide which group is which, but I guarantee you: the other group knows it is you who cannot see.) I write this not so much to rationalize whatever vitriol we've heard from one side or the other. And, in my view, it does seem that this vitriol has been fairly one-sided.
I'm writing about this topic, because if we do not address the lack of empathy from both sides, it will only get worse. History shows us that when both sides get to the point of seeing human beings as "other," disaster inevitably follows. Dehumanization always precedes genocide. And a demagogue's vitriol is fine, just as long as he's our strong man.
The problem is how we have collectively responded to that vitriol. But remember, a collective response first begins with individual actions. Have our actions been in compassion? Or shame?
I want you to really push yourself with this point. People lash out and hold on to a strongman's words because they are desperate.
Well, you might say, that's no excuse to act the way they are. And you know what? You might be right.
But when we respond from a shaming standpoint it only reinforces to the other side that we are enemies to be defeated. Conversation breaks down. Probably one of the best reads I've had this past week, I found (of all places) in a Cracked article that you can read here.
I seriously hesitated about writing a piece about this shame-fear dynamic, because I run the risk of people misunderstanding me (or pointing out some lapse in logic that I have undoubtedly failed to see). Still, if I'm going to keep a blog not only featuring stories of transformation and change with the obvious ones (recovery, spirituality, resilience), and I fail to point out a much larger change in ourselves that MUST TAKE PLACE in order for our society to survive the next 100 years, then I've failed at showing the whole picture.
My understanding of the current lack in empathy I'm seeing everywhere (me, included—I'm not somehow trying to persuade you I'm any better) is informed from my own tradition as a person dedicated to following the example of Jesus. I won't shove it down your throat, but to try to conceal this fact or downplay it would be disingenuous.
I believe human beings are a blend of flesh (shame) and spirit (healing/empathy). I strongly believe that our spirits can be strengthened when we bring our collective shame (and shame-ing) to light for forgiveness and healing.
If anything, this past week has shown me how vulnerable I am to shame's enticing power. It's easy to make fun of others. It's simple to see how stupid and uninformed they are. It's much harder to accept that a contemptible man's rhetoric has struck a nerve . . . because of the real desperation others are feeling.
And now, to answer the point of this essay: how do we empathize with others, even when we think (or know) they're wrong?
- Get Out of the Echo Chamber: Social Media really encourages you to listen to like-minded people and shame the other (or simply turn them off). You first need to know this fact. But more than that, you need to put yourself in places where you can see the world from a different person's perspective. And for shit's sake, turn off Facebook and Twitter and get out in the world! (Oh my. This hits me right at home—I'm one of the worst with this point.)
- You Don't Need to Betray Your Principles: You can listen to others' fears without compromising your own beliefs. You can simultaneously take a stand and protest when injustice is done. Take care not to demonize the other, though. It's counter productive and only encourages a further shame-fear cycle to continue.
- Empathy May Not Seem to Work in the Short Run, But is Still Worth It: Probably the best example from history is the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would readily listen (even serve as pastor) to his Nazi jailers. Bonhoeffer lost his life. You may lose yours through this radical empathy. In the end, evil never wins, and it's still worth it to listen, learn, grow, and transform the world by and through your "love of enemy."
How will you strive in the coming months to denounce shame and embrace empathy—even when it seems like you are betraying the values you hold most dear?
About the Author
Daniel D. Maurer is a nationally recognized public speaker and author. He keeps the blog Transformation is Real. He hopes that others might see that personal change is never static, but a moving target grounded in the resilience to keep on keeping on. His books are here, here, and here.