In a country as divided as ours is right now, it’s hard to imagine how the rift between political parties could ever be bridged. We see evidence of the division everywhere we look, the news, social media, family gatherings…
We live in a digital world. Most of our information is gleaned from online sources. Most of our interactions with people happen through a computer or phone screen. It’s difficult to cultivate empathy when we interact more with a keyboard or touch screen than we do an actual person.
The truth is, it is so much easier to disagree with, dislike, become angry with, or even hate someone we don’t have to have any personal interaction with. It’s so much easier to spout off vitriolic responses when we are typing them into a device.
I want to be an advocate for relationships. I believe that if we could just sit down and have actual conversations with people – like, face-to-face conversations – then we would take that first and most important step towards bridging the divide in our country.
From social media, it’s easy to believe that the entire world is either a liberal or a conservative, but that just isn’t true. A recent Gallup study quoted in an article on The Slate (linked here) shows that only 30% of millennials call themselves liberal, while 28% identify as conservative. 40% of millennials surveyed said they were politically moderate.
Could it be true that we aren’t as divided as it seems?
That seems crazy, right? All I have to do is open up my Twitter or Facebook feeds and I see two very different views of America. But what happens when we have a genuine conversation with someone who thinks differently from us? And not the kind of conversation where we are only participating in order to get our own point across, or our only goal is to convince the other person of our viewpoint. What if we had conversations with people where the only purpose was to get to know them and understand their opinion? Since when do we have to agree with each other to listen to each other? We need to stop trying to force our opinions down everyone’s throat and start listening just for the sake of listening.
Be willing to listen to why someone has a particular opinion. Don’t automatically assume they’re stupid or a bigot or they hate America. Let them talk first. Try to understand them first. Gaining an understanding of where someone is coming from doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice what you believe. If anything, it should make you more confident in your beliefs and more capable of discussing and defending them intelligently. If you can’t talk about your opinions without getting angry then you might be doing it wrong.
It’s hard to be angry with people when you have an open and honest conversation. We need to create safe spaces in our relationships where we can express our opinions – even if that means we disagree with each other – without the fear of backlash and arguing.
We also need to understand what it really means to hold the beliefs that we do. If I am a proponent for cracking down on illegal immigration then I need to understand what that means for immigrants and their families. I need to understand why my belief offends or hurts someone else. Again, that does not mean that I have to change my opinion – but ignoring the needs and feelings of other people does make me a bigot. I can hold my belief, but I need to understand that there is a price for that belief, and just because I am not the one who has to pay that price doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be paid at all.
If I am pro-life, I need to try to understand the pain of a friend who had what was technically considered a late-term abortion because her child was dead inside of her. I need to listen to women who have aborted children they loved and desperately wanted, because of severe medical issues that would have prevented those children from living outside of the womb. Even if it’s not something I think I would do, it is still important for me to listen without judgment. My experiences are unique; so are everyone else’s. I cannot comprehend the pain of losing a child – regardless of the way that child was lost. I will forever be pro-life, but I will never marginalize what someone else has gone through. I will never try to tell them how they should react to a situation that I know would completely tear me apart if it were me.
If I don’t want to turn my back on refugees, I need to understand that I could be putting my country at risk. I need to realize that even though – statistically speaking – the odds are very low that a terrorist could come here disguised as a refugee, it’s still a possibility. I have to put a lot of trust in a system I don’t fully understand to vet the people we are trying to help. I can’t be naive enough to think that there won’t be people willing to take advantage of our help and hospitality.
There are consequences to every choice; understanding those consequences is vital. The best way to begin healing the division between the American people is for us to start listening to each other; for us to become friends with people who are different from us; for us to get out of our bubbles and try to empathize with people we disagree with. The more we do that, the more we will be able to understand the sacrifices that some will have to make if we get what we want – and that’s important. We don’t have to change our minds, but we do have to learn empathy. We do have to realize that we aren’t alone in the world – that other people have opinions, feel pain, lose the ones they love, and have the same range of human emotion that we do.
Building real relationships is the key to empathy – and empathy is one of our most important human qualities.
I can’t say enough that trying to understand and empathize with someone else’s experiences doesn’t mean that we have to change our minds. But it will change our hearts. My hope is that it would allow us to disagree without hating each other. My hope is that it will allow us to respect each other. My hope is that we could learn to love each other.
My hope is that we become “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
And the first step we can take is learning how to listen.