IMAGINE Magazine-Spring2016 - Page 26

they are enlivened by the challenge it is to portray characters very different from themselves , those from different backgrounds who they would be less likely come across in their own lives . It is challenging for many of us to extend our empathy to those outside of our comfort zone and about whom we tend to make assumptions based on our biases and so judging , choose not to engage , never imagining quite who we may have missed .
Perhaps the most edifying arena for observing human behavior is the political , in which we can find examples of levelheaded negotiation and exemplary addresses from the floor , as well as pure theatrical buffoonery . We know that in politics , regardless of all the talk about truth and transparency , many things remain murky and opaque . We know that often , things are not as they appear , that politicians ( and non-politicians ) are also actors on the political stage , intent on convincing us that they are just like us , that the empathy they claim to feel for us is genuine .
The problem is , they do this in the least convincing way , by simply telling us it is so , that they can and do relate . They assure us that our worries are their own , that they feel our pain and know what it is to feel left behind , and that they , too , know what it is to be suddenly awakened by the cold slap of reality from their very own American Dream . Still , we are not convinced . We need more information . So we turn to the national polls . The polls tell us we are discontent , wary of our future and concerned about our present conditions . Things , they tell us , aren ’ t going as we ’ d planned , we are frustrated and angry and especially fed-up
Our opinions and ideologies , our assumptions and biases are those prickly needles that can poke and sting those around us when they are rigid and inflexible .
with the status quo — but then , we already knew that . Even those reports informing us that the one unifying factor across the American electorate is our pervasive dissatisfaction , leave us with no new sense of affinity with the other side and the divide between us only widens . After all , we are not like them . We don ’ t even know them . The old refrain has become a bipartisan query : Who are these people ?
As a society , we seem to be experiencing a version of the “ uncanny valley ” effect : repulsion or fear in response to looking into the face of a near human , but not quite human , ‘ other .” Though the differences between us are disturbing , it is the similarities we find particularly unnerving . We prefer to focus on our differences and discount our similarities , and there are always those politicians who are more than willing to exploit our divisiveness .
And on and on it goes . We remain undecided or conflicted , so we talk amongst ourselves and gather around our various screens or our radios , listening intently for that ( nearly ) inaudible dog whistle of hope , calling us to commit , to rally , to believe in ourselves and our great nation , to make America less prickly again .
This is where empathy comes in , and we return to the story about the prickly porcupines . It is no wonder that many of us feel diminished by the displays of conflict and vitriol , aggression and intolerance . It is our lesser selves writ large that we see reflected back to us in the specter of such discord and derision . As much as we question who they may be , we must also ask ourselves , who are we ? Are we able to engage in discussions and civil conversations with those with whom we do not agree ? Do we look upon others through the lens of empathy , to better see their humanity and understand their hopes and fears and fundamental dignity ? Our opinions and ideologies , our assumptions and biases are those prickly needles that can poke and sting those around us when they are rigid and inflexible . The more we equate our identities with our opinions or our party of preference , or the color of our skin or width of our wallets , the less accommodating we are to the rights and needs and points of view of those around us .
We can hold on , can cling to these differences and maintain our distance , but the world grows colder for our failure to form and cultivate diverse community . There is trial and error , yes , but our intention must be to come together , to find common solutions and in so doing , to spread the warmth that is true empathy , that is love .
Michelle Easson is an educator , activist , archaeologist , cultural anthropologist , and child and mental health advocate . She holds advanced degrees in education and psychology and undergraduate degrees in anthropology and theatre arts . Easson was selected as United Nations Special Envoy in Education and traveled to Cuba with a coalition to participate in a cultural exchange seminar . She is currently a freelance assistant and contributor in social science research and works with minority women teaching life skills and career development in the Coaching for Change outreach program she founded .
26 IMAGINE l SPRING 2016
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