Empathy and Our Nation

I have kids and I love them. Sometimes love isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to be told how to express your love in a way that crosses a barrier you’ve slowly built up over time. I was noticing a problem with one of my kids about how they responded to being angry. I tried “everything”, ranging from punishment, to yelling, to calmly reasoning, etc. None of it worked… until, I realized the problem wasn’t with the child… the problem was with me. The child was trying to tell me something and I wasn’t listening. The child was using tantrums, yelling, and other unacceptable methods to get my attention and my first reaction was to calmly (or sometimes not calmly) explain their behavior wasn’t acceptable. The problem was I wasn’t listening. The issues got worse, more loud, more uncontrollable. I still wasn’t listening. Then we changed our approach… instead of considering the behavior as the problem to solve, we looked at the relationship and the causes of the behavior. The child, through the behavior, although inappropriate, was saying “see me! hear me!”… all of which we had addressed with essentially a “yes… but” way of engaging. It wasn’t until we stopped trying to correct the behavior and focused on correcting the relationship that things got better. Much better. We focused on restating how the child was feeling, understanding the situation, not trying to solve it. Just being present. Then… as the child understood we wanted to understand… the frustration dropped, we began to re-establish trust and grow the relationship. We needed to understand how the child was being negatively impacted by a set of circumstances or feedback and build trust that we as parents would address the situation. We initially thought that punishment or rewards might be the solution, when the real solution was to understand… to really understand and ensure the person knew we cared. The solution was empathy and building up the relationship with healthy dialog vs. destroying the relationship with negative reinforcement.

I believe the same lessons many of us learn as parents are the same lessons we need to learn as a nation. For too long we’ve chosen to push the challenges of race to the side. All the while, the disenfranchised communities have said “see me!”, “hear me!”. We’ve given token awareness to the problem and noted that they are disrespecting the nation by protesting their circumstances. We’ve threatened them, said… “you can’t talk like that”… “you can’t protest like that”. The protests got louder, more vocal, some individuals chose to react in inappropriate ways, which isn’t healthy or good. Ask ourselves the question… why has it come to this? Why do people react this way? The answer is they aren’t feeling heard and they don’t have trust that the people in authority are going to address the systematic problems in their lives. The same situation we dealt with as a family is the same situation that families are scared about today. When a family asks… “how can my family be this broken?”, the nation asks the same… “how can our nation be this broken?”. Families are broken when both sides refuse to talk, when they create long-standing and bitter divisions, when they drive each other away. Now is the time for empathy… not because it is a quick and easy way, but because it is the only way.

We won’t solve these problems by condemning the behavior, by relying on tear gas and riot gear. No amount of police or national guardsmen will prevent civil unrest. Enough national uprisings and civil wars have proven this year over year. Instead, the problem will be addressed by seeking to understand each other and looking for a way forward. Understanding the reaction of the disenfranchised is to make itself heard, empathy is not a bumper sticker… it’s real. We need to hear it. We need to react and take seriously a transformation that is necessary across the nation which must take on systematic cultures of racism, poverty, and disenfranchisement and enable all people to live as God created them to live. If we are to believe that God created all people beautiful and with purpose, our main goal must be to ensure that everyone can live out the vocation given them. This will only be addressed if we choose to love, even though it is the harder choice, the more sacrificial choice.

Consider the motivations of your heart. If your motivations are “well… hopefully this will just go away”, it might for a little while, but it will come back. If instead your motivations are based on love, you’ll be able to find the power to reach out and seek the opportunities to remove the barriers between yourself and other people. This isn’t about solving problems, it’s about solving relationships and removing systematic inequality built in years of mistrust and fractured communities. Relationships are built when someone becomes vulnerable and allows the possibility of being hurt, understanding that they might, but also remembering that we’re worth it.

Nathan Lasnoski

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