Have you noticed tension rising as we get closer to the election? The divisiveness created by our two-party political system certainly takes the “united” out of the United States of America.
Dealing with the pain and uncertainties of a global pandemic certainly doesn’t help. During a time when we need more connection and compassion, politics keeps widening the gap between us.
How can we possibly chip away at the sturdy walls that divide us? Is it even possible to ‘compassion it’ right now?
I think it is possible, but it takes effort. One of my favorite quotes comes from Brené Brown in her book Braving the Wilderness:
“People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”
We all need to start “moving in” to dismantle the hatred that keeps us apart. It’s a darn good time for compassion, if you ask me.
What does “moving in” look like? I’ve created a brief exercise below to help you consider how to “move in.” Use your imagination a little bit and see if you can put yourself in these scenarios.
You’ve always considered yourself lucky to live next to your neighbors, and there’s one who stands out…Jamie.
Throughout the years, you’ve taken Jamie up on her offers to drive you to the airport, and you bring by a steaming hot bowl of your famous chili each time you make it. If there’s a package sitting on Jamie’s front step for too long, you send a text to make sure she’ll be home soon to grab it.
Now read the below scenarios and notice how you feel during and after reading each one.
I’ve given Jamie two different personas:
Scenario 1 – Jamie is conservative
Scenario 2 – Jamie is liberal
The other day, Jamie, wearing her red MAGA hat, whistled as she proudly pushed the metal stand of her new “Trump for President” sign into the soft grass. Lately, she has been sharing posts from Donald Trump, Jr. on Facebook that claim, “Protesters are burning down our nation,” and, “Liberals want to take your guns.”
Last week, you stopped by Jamie’s home, and you noticed a large Biden/Harris sign in her front window. Lately, she won’t stop talking about police brutality and about how “All Cops Are Bad.” Although she has been over-the-top cautious about COVID-19, and missed your outdoor birthday party because of it, she attends protests with hundreds of people.
Now take some time to reflect:
How did you feel when you read each one?
Does one (or both) of those scenarios create a negative emotional reaction within you?
Would you go outside and strike up a friendly conversation with Jamie, even though her political views are different than yours?
Will you plan to ignore Jamie until after the election?
Hopefully you’re still friendly and feel warmth toward Jamie even though she might have a different political viewpoint. She has been your friend for a while, and you two care for each other.
If we want to create a less divided United States, we need to prioritize “moving in” even when it seems impossible to do so. We need to stay connected to our Jamies. We need to make compassion our guiding principle during this election.
What does that look like? Here are some suggestions that might help bridge the gap:
1 – Remember the humanity of people
No matter what, we should not call someone (even a polarizing political figure) names like “rat,” “pig,” “monkey,” or “cheeto.” I’ve noticed that during this presidential election season, people on both sides of the aisle use dehumanizing language. When we begin to refer to someone as non-human, it’s much easier to act in atrocious ways. Dehumanizing an opponent fuels hatred and violence, and this can happen in the brain without you even knowing it.
Resist the urge to dehumanize by remembering that this person was once an innocent newborn. This person has friends and family who love them, and this person wants to be appreciated (just like you). You have more in common with this person than you know.
Research indicates that you can re-humanize someone by imagining them eating a favorite vegetable. Your brain will recognize this person as a human being, just like you. Give that a try during this election season, and let me know what happens! Can you notice compassion starting to emerge instead of anger, distrust, or frustration?
2 – Keep in mind that individuals are products of systems
If you want to ‘compassion it,’ aim your anger at the system that perpetuates violence and greed instead of the human being whose behavior was created by that system.
For example, if you’re upset about police brutality, recognize that the individual police officers are products of our criminal justice system. It’s not the officer’s fault, it’s the system’s.
You might say, “But that officer is racist!” I encourage you to recognize that racism comes from systems, too. We are all products of our environments and upbringings.
To be clear, Compassion It and I do not condone racist or violent behavior. Individuals should be held accountable for their actions. However, that doesn’t make me angry with that person or feel hatred toward them. Instead, I choose to aim my anger toward the system that created the behavior. That allows me to feel compassion for the individual.
3 – Consider the other’s values
I highly suggest you watch the TED Talk by social psychologist Robb Willer, “How to have better political conversations.” He discusses his research on political division and points out that conservatives’ values (purity, respect for authority, patriotism), differ from liberals’ values (equality, care, protection).
His studies suggest that if you try to persuade someone on the other side of the aisle to agree with you on an issue, you need to appeal to their moral values.
For example, if you are liberal and try to persuade your neighbor, Jamie, to take steps that lessen greenhouse gas emissions, you shouldn’t say, “We need to protect the planet and all of its inhabitants.” Instead, you should say something like, “In America, we should have access to pure water and air.”
4 – Listen
There’s no way we can lessen the gap between us if we don’t truly listen to each other. What if we listen with an open heart and mind and without an agenda?
I’m from a small town in Illinois, and many people from my hometown view political issues differently than I do. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad people. In fact, I know they are big-hearted, generous, loving people, and I’m lucky to have grown up with them. If I can get off my high horse for a moment and simply listen without trying to convince them of my views, I can create connections instead of division.
One more suggestion…maybe it’s best to not bring up politics with Jamie right now. It might be better to just let that lie until the dust settles.
Move in. Be Jamie’s friend during this insane month. Bring over some chili. We need each other now more than ever.
If you’d like to make compassion a priority this month, I hope you’ll join our free 30-Day Compassion It Challenge. Register today!
Compassion It makes compassion a verb, and our mission is to inspire compassionate actions and attitudes. As a nonprofit and global movement, we provide tangible tools and trainings that help individuals, organizations, and institutions prioritize compassion.