Empathy Amidst the Chaos

As words were slung between my two senior students, the stress levels of each continued to rise, and tension filled the room.  Each had very strong stances on illegal immigration, and the two girls took each comment more personally than the last, until they were ready to attack each other physically.  When I finally called a cease fire and told each to rethink their approach to the other person, reflecting instead on the way that each was responding, the two began to reach a deeper truth in each other, seeing the other’s worry and fear in the issue, taking note of how the issue was impacting the other on a more personable level.  Their anger was stemmed in their individual fear, and each was acting out in anger based in that fear.  When they were able to see the rooted fear in each other, they became empathetic to the other’s struggle, then putting aside differences, resulting in better and more true communication.  This past week has been difficult for this country.  We’ve seen an election literally split the country down the middle, where the two sides are now in a bitter feud regarding the outcome.  Riots and protests fill our nation’s streets, as both sides feel that they are misunderstood and that the other side is completely wrong.  Anger pervades, but this anger is rooted in something deeper than hatred: fear.  A recent Pew Research Center poll found that “more than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”  Both sides are deeply fearful of the other, terrified of what the other might do to the country.  With each thinking that the other is deeply unreasonable and misguided, a lack of communication results, all of which is based in fear.  So, where there is fear, there is a lack of communication, and thus a lack of empathy develops as both sides misunderstand the other.   When Christ was beginning his ministry in Matthew 9, many gathered to Him to be healed, but the crowds became large and unruly as they quickly grew in number.  Christ could have looked at these people and dismissed them as angry and riotous, but instead He saw what was at the root of their actions: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (9.36).  Looking past their outward anger, He saw their deep-seated fears, and became empathetic to their plights.  With this understanding, he continued his ministry instead of scattering them.  When my two students understood that fear was at the root of their anger, they listened to one another and began a constructive dialogue.  Although they didn’t agree in the end, there was a mutual acknowledgment and appreciation of the other’s viewpoint, leading to an empathetic understanding of one another.  When we allow our fear to lead to anger, we open the door to hatred and suffering.  With the amount of anger our country is feeling right now, our hatred will only grow if we don’t work towards open communication.  It’s time to look past the anger we have for one another and see the fear that is at the heart of our actions.  When we see that we are acting out of fear, we begin an empathetic journey that leads to a better understanding of one another.  Although we may never agree, we can certainly appreciate each other and work towards an openly communicative understanding of each other’s point of view.  In the aftermath of this most difficult election, we need no longer focus on our differences and be afraid of one another, but instead empathically look towards open communication and to what unites us as a nation.  Only then can we be healed.  Amen.

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