The Election of 2016 is going to go down in as a watershed moment in our nation’s history. All the polls suggested that we were going to elect our first female president. Instead, a political outsider defied the odds and won. Let me say from the outset that I voted for Hillary. I don’t want you to guess where my bias lies. Next, rather than do the reflexive thing and try to get any Trump supporters reading this post to understand my perspective—why I voted the way I did, and why I think you made the wrong choice—I’m going to suggest that I understand, and further, empathize with your choice. (Watch, that’s going to piss off a lot of my liberal friends.)
Members of my family voted for Trump. They are good, well-meaning people, and I love them. If I do the philosophical forensics, I think I can ascertain what values they prioritized this election—the protection of our borders and our national economic self-interest. If I’m honest with myself, I can relate to those values too. Because, on a personal level, I find myself locking my doors and protecting what’s precious to me. So, clearly, my actions express those same principles. I can even imagine fighting for some things—my family and individual human rights. So, when I go through this exercise of empathy, I intuit that the members of my family who voted for Trump did so out of a natural impulse for self-preservation. They felt threatened. I affirm people voting in a way that they think will keep them safe. I even honor what seems to animate one of the conservative movement’s core principles—an honest desire to protect values and a way of life that feels threatened by alternative world-views, the pace of progress and changing mores. If we took a poll, I’m sure we would find that most Native Americans have long related with that instinct. Just a different perspective, huh? So it seems like both right and left sides of the isle could find some common ground here. Yes, protect what keeps us safe.
So let’s keep going. I’m sure we can find more areas of common interest that will help us bridge the divisions between our two parties. The hot button (forgive the obvious pun) issue that immediately jumps to my mind is global warming. I know what you’re thinking, ‘where’s the common ground?’ There’s a lot if we first allow ourselves to be rational, and then, to empathize with each other. Let’s start with rationality first. THE PLANET IS WARMING AND HUMANS ARE RESPONSIBLE! That is settled science. If we can’t start with a rational appraisal of the predicaments we face, then policy initiative won’t serve our greater self-interest. And yes, this problem is disruptive too. Because if we really got serious, certain segments of our society, like the coal and petroleum industries and the millions of people whom they currently employ will experience economic and job losses. That is going to happen. Can we empathize? If we did, we might use our imaginations to create public/private partnerships to help retool and rebuild the energy system based on renewable sources. For example, I was able to get 50% of my electric power from wind farms, immediately, and for free! We could all do this.
Imagination is our most valuable asset. We put our heads together and rebuilt Europe and Japan after WWII. We could initiate a “Marshall Plan” for our energy infrastructure too. In doing so, we could lead the world in solving a clear and presently dangerous problem while at the same time transitioning millions of people to new lines of work. But, such problem solving requires empathy. We have to start to listen and relate to each other. I need coal workers and petroleum executives to relate to my grave concern that my daughter is inheriting a planet that is teetering on the edge of a devastating environmental tipping point. For my part, I need to empathize, rather than vilify, those same coal and petrol workers. I need to support politicians who champion public/private partnerships that can help us move decisively toward a sustainable energy future.
I could go on and on pointing out where we could find common ground on issues where there seems to be none. Abortion and abortion rights is one. Both sides have a legitimate argument. There is a point after which it is morally wrong to abort a child. And no, that time is not the morning after, and because we honor the rights of women to control the destiny of their bodies, not within the first trimester either. Pregnancies resulting from incest, rape or save the life of a mother, yes, but not abortion without limits either. If such an unwanted pregnancy did occur, why wouldn’t we want to have a morning after pill or a safe, local and affordable women’s health clinics to care for these women? Of course, we should. Reasonable people can find middle ground here. Now that I’m on the topic, what about health care? If we look around, there are many examples of well-functioning health care systems all around the world. And when I write well-functioning, I mean that they provide better outcomes for less money than does our system. Again, the opportunity is that we put our entrenched positions aside and find a way to work this out. Put the people’s needs ahead of corporations profits. I’m sure we could come up with a system that would satisfy one person’s desire for choice and another person’s desire for affordability. We could do it if we started empathizing with each other. What about a social safety net? Sure, if we felt empathy for our fellow citizens we would find a way to provide material support for those born into impoverished circumstances while at the same time also understanding the legitimate concern that free handouts are, over time, disempowering. We could find equitable ways to address both sides of that debate by tying resources to responsibilities. Taxes? I think we can all agree that there is a balance here too. Not enough revenue means a crumbling infrastructure and crushing debt passing to future generations. Too much tax and people feel embittered. I get it. But be careful now if you are a card carrying member of the no new taxes crowd. Watch where you want to set the balance. Check and see if you want to put a finger on the scale in your favor. Most people do. Or, are you open to being fair and magnanimous even when it comes to tax policy? Consider what kind of a country we would live in if everyone felt a deep kinship to each other and a sense of mutual responsibility.
My work with individuals and couples has taught me listen and empathize with others. I don’t always agree with them, as in the case of my Trump voting family members. But if I take the time to ferret out the values behind their opinions I can always find a way to empathize. If we don’t do that hard work, our opinions start to become more and more distorted. We start to generate strong negative feelings and direct them outward, at our family members and people who we identify as different than us. Other people are not your enemy. Your personal enemy, if you have one, is a narrow perspective that sees only you vs. me and us vs. them.
From my point of view, Republicans made a conscious choice not to work with Barack Obama to the detriment of working people in this country. That, among many other factors for which the Democrats are responsible made it possible for a fear-peddling outsider to win the White House. Now, Democrats have the same choice with respect to Donald Trump. They could do the easy thing and become the new party of NO! I hope that doesn’t happen. Don’t get me wrong; I want a strong opposition party to state its case and stick to its core principles. That said, however, I want the opposition to remain open other people’s perspectives. Ask questions, and discover the values that animate your political opponent’s choices. Once you understand and can empathize, suggest a solution that stakes out the higher, common ground. I welcome shares and comments, but please no hate, okay?
Lastly, I have an offer for anyone who’s interested interested in learning how to become more deeply empathetic and improve your relationships. My wife, business and relationship coach and mindfulness educator, Lynda Skinner Pirtle and I are hosting a free webinar. If you’d like to learn about the real language of love, called attunement, join us. We’re hosting this webinar to make it easier for you (and us) to hang out with family during the holidays. Who wouldn’t want that? If you’d like to register, click on this link: https://zoom.us/w…/register/39242058bbd9784634538d7d4481ef37. For any other questions or information about us our mindfulness courses email me at email@example.com.
To a great next four years!