Want divisiveness to stop? Campaign for empathy

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The other day I was in a Zoom meeting with some folks, one of whom I have struggled with personally. There are few people in my life with whom I default to judgment anymore, but she has been one. For several years, I've been working on dumping my assumptions about people and increasing my curiosity about them instead. But there I was, listening to this person and feeling my blood pressure rise feeling her ego dripping off the screen. Then, I caught myself, stopped, and took a breath. I began to look and listen as if I had no judgment. I focused on her as just another human like me, trying to do the right thing in whatever way she knew how.

In just one moment, I could feel my body calm down and my heart and mind open. Rather than feeling her ego, I could see her as a fellow child of God. OK, that might sound cheesy to some people, but it felt real. It was real and very healing. I can now honestly say that I won't shy away from being with her again or try to avoid eye contact as I had done before. In reflection afterward, I had to ask myself: “Who's the problem here?” Is it the woman with the ego or the other woman with the ego (me)? I had to acknowledge that no matter how many years of teaching empathy skills or facilitating conflict, I am not immune to getting sucked into my Judgment Self.

I get so upset about people judging people by the color of their skin, the sound of their accent, or the political party they belong to. But how can I expect all of us to change if I'm not changing me? Don't get me wrong. I'm very proud of the work that I do and of my personal growth over the years. But clearly, my personal work is not done and never will be. Just like everyone else on the self-improvement track, I've got to have patience with myself as I attempt to do better.

This experience reminded me that if we want this divisiveness to stop in this country, it's not only up to “our society,” but it's up to ourselves first. If we can't have empathy and genuine curiosity with each other in our own lives, how can we have it for others whom we don't even know?

We're conditioned to see people who are different or separate from us as “the other.” In business and sports, they're our competitors. In politics, they're whacko or stupid. In religion, they're the ones we feel sorry for as they won't have eternal peace. In racial divides, their lives don't really matter or they're self-righteous. Educationally, they're the ignorant other or the elitist who thinks they know it all. When is this going to stop? HOW is this going to stop?

Well in this political season and beyond, I'm campaigning for empathy; emotional intelligence — with our family members, partners, neighbors, customers, colleagues, students, professors, and even our elected officials. And especially, ourselves. Imagine how quickly we'd unite, in dignity, if we truly tried to understand others' lived experiences with empathy and curiosity; listening to each other without judgment. What have we got to lose?

Former Colorado state senator, now with a master's in Social Justice and Ethics from Iliff School of Theology, Linda Newell is a writer, speaker, facilitator, and filmmaker. Senlindanewell@gmail.com, www.lindanewell.org, www.senlindanewell.com, @sennewell on Twitter, Senator Linda Newell or @TheLastBill on Facebook.

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