When Did Empathy Become So Political?

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By 10:43 p.m. on election night, Vox.com stats, FiveThirtyEight tweets, Deseret News electoral map updates, and Buzzfeed News’ video feed playing on separate tabs, I knew that Donald Trump would be the 45th President of the United States and I laughed.

At 10:45 p.m., undone laundry and unread library books lying in a heap in my bedroom, it was funny. It was funny in 2015 when Trump said he’d run and all we could think about was The Apprentice. It was funny last Christmas when my family sat on the couch watching Kevin McCallister run smack dab into Donald in Home Alone II. We laughed, “Can you believe this guy’s running for president? What a joke.” At 10:45, it was funny, because his whole campaign, from the very beginning, was supposed to be just funny.

Then came 11:00, when my friends, in a complete panic, sent me a flurry of messages and terrified tweets. Then came 11:15, when I had two missed calls on my phone, one from my mom and one from my Native friend who I couldn’t call back because I knew she was dismayed by this and I didn’t know how to speak to her. Then came 11:30 when I sat in a room with two of the most opinionated people I’ve ever met who had nothing left in them to say. I slowly ate a bowl of ice cream and spun the spoon around the dregs over and over and over again.

At 10:45, I laughed. The next morning, sitting at my desk at work, I collapsed in on myself and I cried like a child. It’s been a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” week since.

I follow presidential elections pretty addictively. I post way too much stuff on Facebook and push my friends to the brink of blocking and unfriending me, which is why I’ve remained largely silent on politics in the blogging world lately (sorry, guys, I get real passionate sometimes). During the 2012 election, I bought buttons and made phone calls. I put a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker on my car and, in a fit of disappointment the day Obama was elected, wrote “should have won” in Sharpie beneath their names. Then I scraped it off of my car with my fingernails and a spatula the next day, ashamed of myself. I sat in the movie theater during 2016: Obama’s America and was scared of what the film showed but mentally rubbed my hands together with a Grinch smile, eagerly awaiting 2016 and the day I’d say, “I told you so! Obama’s America said this would happen!”

It’s now 2016, and I find myself broken to my bones, trying to understand how this is our America, how we have spent so many years drowning our humanity so we don’t feel bad about stripping others of theirs.

I don’t know for sure, but I think Trump stopped being funny to me when he said that all Muslims should be registered and I thought of a kind Islamic boy I interviewed for my college newspaper sophomore year who made me feel like the important one. Trump wasn’t funny to me when he made fun of a man with a physical disability and I thought of a mentally handicapped man in my neighborhood who has devoted his life to smiling and waving at people to make them happy. He wasn’t funny to me when he talked about shipping out illegal immigrants and building a wall around Mexico, and I thought about some neighbors whose dad didn’t come here legally, and how, unprompted, they brought us tamales for Christmas and sang Feliz Navidad. Trump wasn’t funny when he treated women like they were no better than how attractive they were, and I thought of how I’d go home with tears spilling down my acne in high school because the boys on the bus would make lists rating neighborhood girls’ on their looks. I didn’t find these things funny, and I didn’t think anybody else did either.

Then they did.

Many laughed at these things, and most overlooked them. When the election came down to brass tacks, friends and neighbors and family members, many who I thought didn’t find it funny either, made a choice. And to be fair, it was a hard one. I get that. I get the fear on both sides. But many didn’t just make a choice — they pointed their fingers, lecturing and condemning the rest of us who couldn’t and wouldn’t vote for the man. And it hurt. It was confusing. It was lonely. I thought I knew where I stood two years ago. I thought I supported the right platforms and the right people. Now, I feel unsure. I often don’t know who or what I support politically — I toy with ideas and test how they fit — because at a time that demanded that people like me stand up for decency and for each other, many didn’t, and I feel letdown and lied to. I have been angry, I have been unfair, I have been hypocritical, I have been confused, and I have been heartbroken, caught in loops of contradiction. Heroes, if they aren’t dead, seem achingly silent to me, and my unmet concerns fill in their blanks.

We can’t change these election results, but this election has fundamentally changed many of us. Days out, the hate keeps spilling into our Facebook pages, our communities, our schools, and our streets. We have become the mudslingers and the lunchroom bullies we were always scared of as kids. We put our political beliefs on a higher pedestal than plain decency. We share disgusting and hateful memes/videos, we criticize “stupid conservatives” or “dumb libs,” and we laugh at them. We make fun of democrats who are upset, or we, in a fit of rage, point fingers and scream obscenities at the conservatives who let this happen. We build wall after wall after wall after wall, not because our presidential candidates made us do it, but because we chose to do it ourselves. We are loud and we are bruising, and where our love and compassion should be is a wide, cold, stinging silence that everybody notices but few do anything about. It’s somehow wrong to fill the void.

I wonder every single day now, When did empathy become so political?

When did it become political to look a black mother in her eyes and mourn at the realization that she’s scared her children won’t come home every. single. day. When did it become political to do the same for the young wife of a cop? When did it become political to love and welcome those who are gay, those who have no home to go back to because they’ve lost everything, or those so desperate to provide for their families that a border doesn’t matter? When did it become political to be kind to the old, the young, those who love their God, or those who feel that their public leaders neither listen to them nor care? When did it become political to simply feel?

I don’t get how, when a young Syrian boy quietly runs his hand down his blood-covered face as responders try to save any family members left living in the rubble of his home, we can still say, “I don’t want these monsters coming into my country. They can stay in Syria.” I don’t get how we can laugh at people for their lack of education when they haven’t had the opportunities we have had and are simply trying to do the best they can with what they have. Instead of teaching them, we mock them. I know because, sadly, I’ve done it. I don’t get how we can tell people who are loud about their concerns that they need to shut up and stop whining when we refused to listen to them when their concerns were quiet. We see the symptoms of deep, unaddressed pain and we condemn them for it over and over and over again. I don’t get how, knowing the stories of Apartheid, Jim Crow laws, and the Holocaust, and knowing how wrong these things were, some of us still have enough wretchedness in us to suggest that race is the difference between someone who matters and someone who doesn’t. Days out, I’m reading story after story after story of little children who are scared their families will be deported, young women who have been objectified and harassed because “it’s just locker room talk,” and grown men who have had their property vandalized with racial slurs and swastikas.

How did we let our anger push us this far?

We are now at the crux when we have to move forward, but if we move forward and leave our compassion behind, we go backwards. Whether we want to admit it or not, if we continue to spread the same hate and use the same tones that we used this entire election to express ourselves, we will kill ourselves. If we unite behind the system and not behind loving each other, we fail. Some of us are mourning right now, others of us are rejoicing — how many of us are traversing that in-between where we can see the reasons why? How many of us are more concerned with trying to understand each other than trying to push a point? We are lazy, and hating is easy. But loving? Loving is better. Every. Single. Time. And it is possible.

I think we’ve forgotten how it feels to put our love before our agendas. I think our empathy has been sitting in its closet gathering dust for so long that we see more use in throwing it out than in trying to use it. We’ve poisoned ourselves with hatred, clickbaity articles dripping with disdain, political pundits who get their ratings from screaming and insulting, terrible name-calling, awful memes, and for what? We’ve wasted the past two years believing that it’s more important to be right and rude than it is to peel away our perceptions of the people we clearly do not understand and truly see them. At the end of the day, we all want to be loved, to feel safe, to be happy, and to have a fulfilling future. We all have the same desires. We share the same needs. We bleed and we hurt, and we sometimes scream, but we can love, too. We can mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. We can see others, not for their differences and for their anger, but for their deep, unmet needs that compel them to behave and think the way that they do. We can get people, even when we don’t share their beliefs. What a long time it has been since we all tried our best to make that effort. I guess that’s why we feel alone and angry now.

I don’t know where this country goes from here, to be honest. I don’t know what the future holds. I know it will be fairly easy for me and much, much harder for others. I know that people are hurting and they feel like no one cares or listens, and to be fair, many of us don’t, and that is wrong. I know that I would much rather be watching Kevin McCallister run into Donald Trump in the Plaza Hotel than watching America run headlong into the hatred his campaign has espoused. But this isn’t about him, this is about us.

Our empathy matters, and it is the one thing we cannot sterilize or politicize any longer.

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1 comment

  1. So very eloquently, accurately and lovingly spoken.

    And this has a historical basis…

    Quoting Wkipedia:

    “The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden; French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front of World War Iaround Christmas 1914. In the week leading up to the holiday, French, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, giving one of the most memorable images of the truce. Peaceful behaviour was not ubiquitous; fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.

    The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting fraternization.”

    This is the difference: “WE The People” are ALWAYS in charge of the love.