History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
– Seamus Heaney
We tend to think how things are now are how they will always be. We are biased for the present, against all of history’s evidence there is an imminent future of possibility approaching in each moment. Our genius as humans comes not in being able to recollect the past or define the present, but in being able to shape the future.
As in ages before, our current age feels particularly perilous and divided. It is unique, but it is not uncommon. On certain days it feels exhausting and even dangerous to have hope, to believe in good outcomes. Perhaps, we say to ourselves, the path has brought us to this point and this is where we have to live, unchanging, for as long as we can imagine.
Yet I believe there is a way forward, a way of shaping the future with tidal waves of justice and hope. It’s entirely more than “just all getting along” or going back to some imagined perfect age before the current troubles (those do not exist, despite what some will tell you).
There have always been troubles and there likely always will be. And while it’s true we choose how we respond to trouble and pain and suffering, we also get to choose what kind of trouble and pain and suffering is tolerated and continues on. We get to shape the future.
So often, though, we defer the responsibility to another generation yet to arrive. Will we pass the immense responsibility off once again? Or will we listen and understand?
Justice, change, and healing all begin with listening, with empathy.
Empathy is something I’ve studied. Definitions vary, but it’s essence is the ability to understand the perspective and feelings of another person without judgement and allowing the other person to feel understood.
A prerequisite for practicing empathy is believing a person has inherent, untouchable value that can’t be taken away. If you try to empathize with or understand another person but can’t — that’s okay, because it’s hard work and humanity is diverse. Keep trying and don’t give up.
But if you refuse to empathize, that is to say, if you choose not to try and understand how another person sees the world and the experiences they’ve had, justice and change and understanding all begin to fade. Perhaps unintentionally, you decided the other person (or group of people) doesn’t have the same value you do. They are less than human to you. That is the heartbeat of discrimination, exclusion, and hatred. Seeing other people as less valuable can be a conscious choice, a collective choice. But the most devastating kind is the unexamined, subconscious choice. Ultimately, it is always an individual choice.
Empathy, it turns out, can be taught and developed in people who may not be naturally empathetic. You can teach things like “perspective taking,” which is putting yourself in another person’s shoes and considering what they see or how they feel. You can also teach “behavioral empathy,” helping someone act in ways that communicate understanding and openness even if they can’t relate directly to the emotional experience someone is going through. Behavioral empathy could as simple as maintaining eye contact, communicating back what you heard a person say, or even acknowledging pain without offering a “helpful” solution.
- Empathy says “That must really hurt…” instead of “It’s not as bad as you think.”
- Empathy says “Tell me more about it…” instead of “Here’s what you should do.”
- Empathy says “It sounds like you’re in a hard place right now…” instead of “Everything happens for a reason.”
Empathy is the fuel on which meaningful relationships run. It’s the only way connection is possible. But it’s not enough to empathize with those who are close to you or like you. That’s not really empathy as much as it is self-consolation. Empathy needs to stretch across artificial borders.
The research is clear, you can teach people to be empathetic. But the utterly condemning reality is that believing a person has inherent, untouchable value that can’t be taken away is the prerequisite for a willingness and ability to empathize. If you won’t try to understand someone (without judgement), you are ignoring their value.
It’s sneaky though, because we can all easily say we believe everyone has value. That all men and women are created equal. That we all deserve equal protection under the law, access to the same rights and privileges. We can say all people are created equal and yet live our lives in direct opposition to that belief. Which is to say, we don’t actually believe it.
Without realizing it, we are devaluing people all around us.
When we choose not to empathize, we are often thinking, “why waste the time taking on someone else’s perspective? It won’t matter how they see things, they are wrong. They are damaged. They are perverse. They are evil. They are other. Of course I can’t understand what they are going through. I don’t want to, because I’m not like them. It’s their own fault.”
If you think this way of seeing the world doesn’t exist, you aren’t paying attention. People have become increasingly comfortable not only thinking these thoughts, but also with hurling insults, condemnations, and more without regard or reservation for their impact.
We demonize our opponents while overlooking commonalities. We belittle people whose ideals and dreams differ from our own while neglecting the reality of our shared humanity and our shared future. We even demean people who share the same dreams as us, but who have a different gender, a different skin color, a different identity, a different name, a different background.
We all too often refuse to believe, dismissing out of hand, someone who has a perspective or experience that doesn’t match our own, especially if it makes us uncomfortable. And, wow, is it easy for us to get uncomfortable! We aren’t even comfortable with other people being uncomfortable — another person’s mention of discomfort or pain is enough to send most of us into total panic because we can’t handle our discomfort at the sight or sound of someone else’s discomfort. (I suppose when the drumbeat of society is all about how you should pursue comfort and pleasure, it necessarily lowers the threshold of discomfort, making even the slightest inconvenience feel torturous. It’s a race to the bottom.)
We label others and take mental shortcuts. We then label ourselves to make it clear we aren’t what we just labeled someone else. You can’t create an out-group if you don’t have an in-group. Division and judgement requires it.
We cut out all of the nuance and look for the blanket statement, the broad brush, and the simplest narrative. We define people by a single belief or policy or characteristic. The complexity of a miraculous human being dwindled down to a single fact, construct, or moment in history. We’ll be damned if we let others do that to us, but it’s our basic mode, sorting people into “on my side” or “other.” It’s base self-preservation, but we call it things like “having standards” or “being enlightened” or “trying to do the right thing” or “having common sense.”
If you abandon living out the belief that all people are truly created equal and deserving of equal consideration, support, love, and inclusion, then yes, it’s really easy to abandon empathizing, listening, considering, and holding space for mutual understanding. “They aren’t worth it. What a waste of time and space. They are stupid. They are idiots. They are so blind. They are deplorable. They are elitist. They aren’t even human.”
However you’ve worked out why it’s okay to dismiss or reject another person or group of people…have you considered that what they may want or need most is to be understood? To be known? To be freed from the isolation and fear created by your own judgement and categories? “But they do it too!” you may retort. That’s the logic of my nine-year old.
“They aren’t valuable, not the way I am.” We don’t say it, but we mean it.
Mercifully, things work in the other direction as well. Seeing value in others doesn’t diminish our own value, it enhances it.
If you commit to seeing people as inherently valuable, regardless of their lifestyle, their decisions, their status, their preferences, their characteristics — then all of a sudden it’s worth it to take their perspective, to actively try to understand how they see the world and what they feel as they experience life. They are a miraculous human being! Of course it’s worth it.
We can only connect and engage in meaningful, healthy relationship when we understand one another, without judgement, based on the idea that we all have inherent value that cannot be taken away. We are truly equals. When we recognize and acknowledge the value, we do so through time and attention and understanding.
And at the end of the day, you don’t have a relationship with a government or a business or a community — all of those things, all of society, is made up of people and relationships. Healthy government, successful businesses, and thriving communities are made up entirely of people. So are the unhealthy ones, the broken and toxic ones.
C.S. Lewis writes in what is my favorite of his essays, “The Weight of Glory:”
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.
If we have any hope for seeing change in our relationships, schools, cities, or nations, it has to start with seeing all people as infinitely valuable and working to create an equally invaluable fabric of mutual understanding.
What is broken is our ability to connect, to relate, to empathize. But what is broken can be fixed. This is one of the amazing things about humans.
We can repair broken things.
We can reconcile frayed relationships.
We can rehabilitate fractured communities and toxic systems.
We can rejuvenate civic engagement.
We can rescue the oppressed and marginalized.
We can recover from devastating loss and pain.
We can renew our vision of what is possible.
We can restore the light which always overcomes darkness.
The work at hand is reconciliation. This is what we need so much right now, to bring people back into conversation, collaboration, and relationship with one another. We need division to be resisted and unity pursued.
Reconciling begins with understanding, and understanding begins with acknowledging the inherent, irrevocable, untouchable, unalienable value within each and every person you meet.
In an overly simplistic flow, this is the path before us:
- The practice of empathy leads to understanding
- understanding leads to compassion
- compassion leads to healing and forgiveness
- healing and forgiveness lead to reconciliation
- reconciliation leads to more healing and more forgiveness
“Understanding triggers compassion that makes forgiveness possible.” – Brennan Manning
At a certain tipping point, somewhere around forgiveness, this new way of living becomes contagious. If we can get things started by listening and understanding and empathizing, then we can get on to the things we desperately need — compassion, forgiveness, and healing. Justice is corrupted without compassion and healing.
There is good and bad news: the hard work starts on the individual level. You don’t have to begin by inviting your sworn enemy into your home (that’s the good news). You actually have to start by looking inward, to see who the anxiety and fear inside of you has turned into your enemy. This is bad news, because it is difficult.
Without self-awareness, there is no ability to even begin listening to and understanding others. You have to get uncomfortable yourself first. And if you are tempted to think you are free of this devious spell, you have more self-inquiry to do and time to be spent looking in the mirror. No one is free of prejudice, judgement, and pride. Do the work and get uncomfortable as quickly as you can, time is short.
Then begin listening to others.
If you are like most, you suspect listening to others may cause more problems. We are suspicious listening may encourage or indulge “the other” to be more of what they are, which we can’t stand. Whatever measure we’ve decided to evaluate our own worthiness with, they fall short of it and listening only furthers that verdict. Of course there areas we fall short of, but we ignore and dismiss those hoping no one is paying close attention. We silently reject the notion of slowing down to consider their point because it might undo our own unexamined perspective. We don’t want to value others because we are afraid we don’t have value ourselves. We lack an understanding of our own worthiness. We think strength is the only way forward, to bludgeon one another with confident positions, regardless of their accuracy; positions we inherited from others and have adapted to our own ends.
Are people wrong about things? Yes. Are there dangerous views and beliefs? Absolutely. Are there blatant injustices that have been condoned and systemically protected for generations? Oh yes. We do need to hold people accountable, to set and protect boundaries, and to cut the lifeline to hatred. Yet we cannot burn down the whole house. We cannot board it up and abandon it.
- A computer developer doesn’t rip out hardware when there is a bug in the software. They look at the code, they poke and prod. They isolate a section and reproduce the problem in a test environment. They seek understanding.
- A teacher doesn’t expel a student who misses a math problem. They ask them to show their work so they can understand the student’s thought process. They work with the student and practice, going back to basics if necessary. They seek understanding.
- An engineer doesn’t rip down a house when there is a crack in the foundation. They don’t just throw up boards or mortar hoping to cover it up. They don’t tell the owner to just be thankful for the parts where there are no apparent cracks. They work back to the source of the failure. They isolate the problem, they plan and consult with others. They seek understanding.
Jesus said peacemakers will be called children of God. He told us to love our enemies. To serve the outcasts and fringe. He showed us how to reject status and lower ourselves when He modeled washing the feet of those who the world said should be serving Him. Whether you believe Jesus was the Son of God or not, I hope you can see the beauty and the dire need for more peacemakers, for more who will faithfully pursue reconciliation. The Apostle Paul said we are ambassadors whose work is always reconciliation.
It should be clear by now the human pursuit of justice is all too easily corrupt, which isn’t to say we should abandon justice. What we need in parallel is a fresh wind of compassion to accompany our pursuit of fairness, equality, and inclusion. We hold those accountable who do harm, who divide, and who oppress. But we do it with compassion, moving to relieve the pain and suffering of the oppressed first and the oppressor second, those who in their own right are suffering so much they discharge pain out of their own brokenness and into the lives of others.
We are all wounded, but we can all be healers. It is part of what makes being a human a miraculous, meaningful, and beautiful reality. We can repair broken things.
What we can’t do is simply hope things better or problems go away. Hope isn’t a strategy. But listening is a strategy. So is understanding. So is compassion. When we are willing to get uncomfortable and work through our own fears, we can lay aside judgement and division in pursuit of a fabric of mutual understanding. It’s the hardest thing you will ever do. Who will take up the call?
Who do you not understand? Begin with listening.
Who does not understand you? Seek mutual understanding.
Who has been left out of the conversation? Make space for them.
Perhaps in our lifetime we will teach our children to listen. Perhaps we will help them seek understanding. The future is in our hands and we get to decide what we will allow to continue and what we will overcome.