Empathy Not Apathy: Choosing to Lead Change

March 17, 2017 By Katherine Tyler Scott

There are very few people who are paying attention to the current political climate who aren’t also alarmed by the number of personal attacks, vicious verbal assaults, falsehoods, vindictiveness, and escalating hostility in our public discourse from too many leaders. The man who occupies the highest political office in the land is a prime example of the decline in respect for those with whom you are in disagreement. Another recent example of someone with no filter is a Representative from Iowa who eagerly shares his racist rants, mistruths and affinity with a belief in white supremacy. The problem is not confined to these leaders; the level of meanness appears to have many followers.

The problem is so dire that it is hard to know where to begin. I began with choosing empathy rather than apathy. I am working very hard to place myself in the shoes of those who remain unequivocally supportive of these “leaders.” I am striving to better understand their compartmentalization, rationalization, complicity, and silence in the face of what feels disrespectful and dangerous.  I never imagined, even in the most cynical or distressed moments in recent history that we would ever have or see such ugliness from high ranking representatives of this country, or observe so many supporting or ignoring such corrupt and corrosive behaviors.

But it is the reality, or at least a part of it; and we must muster every ounce of strength to counter it. I don’t see how we can enter into the fray unless we have some sense of empathy for those who represent the opposite of what we believe, or we will fall into the trap of acting in the ways we abhor. The truth is that the shadow has been unleashed in the Nation’s psyche. Bigotry, scapegoating, the “isms,” have reemerged with a vengeance! Some blame it on a reaction to political correctness. But political correctness did not mean repression of your beliefs. It meant creating a culture of respect and civility in which we could learn about and from one another. It was to help us talk, listen and learn; perhaps change misguided opinions, dispel ignorance born of isolation and fear, and have the courage to step out of our narrow self-interests and see the value of diversity. Obviously many supporting the current leadership and caustic environment didn’t see it this way and from an empathic lens felt they were the newly marginalized, voiceless and invisible; just trading places with the usual maligned groups.

What is happening now is symptomatic of what happens when there is a feeling that you are invisible and in danger of losing an identity, particularly an identity of superiority based on skin color rather than the attributes of character. I wonder if collectively we have enough healthy ego functioning and connection to the core values of our country to regain our sanity and balance to help re-create communities and a nation that is safe for and inclusive of all people?

So where do we start?

I believe we can begin by engaging in inner work; returning to and reflecting on our own beginnings, our own narrative within the broader sweep of history. We must uncover what we remember, what we were told about who we are independently and interdependently; surfacing those first experiences we had with those who were “different.” What were our feelings? Behavior? Thoughts? What messages did we take from these experiences? Which ones did we retain? What conclusions did we draw? What assumptions did we make? How have our experiences affected what we think and feel about others now who are racially or religiously different? How do we behave now when we are in the presence of those who are different? Confronting what makes us at ease or uncomfortable when with those who are different from us will potentially be soul saving.

Of course the inner work process will raise anxiety. So my next recommendation is to journal your thoughts and questions, your places of feeling intense emotions and what the feelings and thoughts are; and then sit with a close and trusted friend or group of friends, those who will honor you and your boundaries, who will ask clarifying questions without having preconceived answers or judgements; those who are able to hold the space for your inner work - a place of honesty, safety and compassion. Obviously this will not be something that can be done in one sitting; the commitment to this work must be long term.

Then I suggest identifying what more you must learn; and commit to educating yourself. Learn about the founders of this democracy, the facts about our Constitution and The Bill of Rights; about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. Take a class or workshop to inform yourself if necessary so that when you hear people use the structure of our government to diminish freedoms or distort the truth you will be able to discern the truth and act accordingly. Other suggestions are to found or find a study group interested in exploring national, racial, ethnic, and religious identities and what this means in the United States. Of course I think you should register for an Inner Work workshop with a very skilled facilitator.

Be conscious of how your values, beliefs and actions are aligned (or not) and seek to live with integrity. Be aware of homogenous groups in which everyone looks like one another, talks like one another, and thinks like one another. Question who is missing and make every effort to include them in your group. Don’t give up if you meet with mistrust. If this is important, and it is, persist.

When encountering incivility don’t respond in kind but don’t remain silent either. Be the voice that is non-anxious and fully present and able to speak your truth with conviction and compassion.

Be empathic; it is the basis for understanding and creating a form of trust that can start an important conversation and withstand inevitable conflict.

Last, remember that changing the climate and bridging the divides we see modeled in our own time begin with each one of us. Apathy must be transformed into empathy; and empathy into action. We must look to ourselves for the leadership most needed now – change really does begin with each one of us.