What's Your Empathy Wall?


"Scaling the empathy wall"-- that's what author Arlie Russell Hochschild challenged herself to do in researching for five years and finally writing her book, "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right."  As a sociologist and writer living in far left Berkley, she wanted to not merely understand those politically opposite from herself as a broad group via polls and faceless statistics, but meet them individually and hear their stories.  She sought direct encounter on their turf, at their jobs, in their homes and churches.  She consumed countless cups of coffee and a mountain of pie as she listened and learned.  Her attempt to climb up her side of the dividing wall and enter their world at a personal, heart level  seemed courageous, rare, and intriguing.  Nobody does that!  What did she gain from such heroics?  Is it worth all that effort?I had heard of this provocative book two years ago when it came out but am just now halfway through reading it myself.  My hopes were to study an example of someone deeply listening to those she disagrees with and is perplexed by, and to gain understanding myself of that same group.  My ministry work here at the US-Mexico border will bring me in contact with those across the political spectrum, and I especially want to learn to build connection among people on different sides of conflict.  This book has already taught me a thing or two.  But a stark difference I have with the author is that you'd think I already get it:  I grew up as one of Them. My family in Indianapolis during the 60s, 70s and 80s was very conservative and I toed that party line. Until my mid-30s I tended to vote Republican and leaned comfortably right.  So the more I read this book, the greater my sense of awkward deja vu.  Although its setting is Louisiana in the heart of the conservative South, many of the themes held a strangely familiar ring. I hear dim echoes of Dad's voice, if not in the details, certainly in the underpinnings.  The mantras of the interviewees were what I unconsciously believed for decades until my own shift started.  They went something like this:

  • work hard, follow the rules, respect authority and you'll be rewarded

  • everyone has the same opportunity to work and excel...so if you're not excelling, you're not working hard enough

  • God blesses good behavior and punishes bad; good behavior earns blessing

  • pull your own weight: never take handouts

  • the government is bloated, untrustworthy, full of corruption, and needs to shrink via cutting social programs that indulge laziness

  • capitalism and the free market are the gold standard; regulation is harmful

How did I start to stray, to question these "truths" backed by personal stories, headlines, and even Scripture? My political shift began imperceptibly as I noticed the incongruities of conservative faith and politics.  I noticed that "love your neighbor" was quite selective, saved for those who looked and acted like us.  I  felt the crushing weight of working hard to follow the rules that earned God's grudging approval in stark contrast to Jesus' message and exuberant displays of overflowing grace to those still in the gutter, the untouchables, the despised of his day.  My concern for the environment grew with my ardent appreciation of it, and the dead silence on that vital issue in my church life and now wavering politics sped me to join those who want to protect it.  Perhaps my shift was in part normal rebellion against a too-strict upbringing.  But whatever the reason, as I read this book, I feel twinges of phantom pain from those roots I cut off; remembering those times is uncomfortable, and I find myself not wanting to revisit them even with strangers through the safe distance of a book.  It cost me a lot to leave the safety and approval of the herd;  I hesitate to poke at the healed places.But what is it that I fear in risking empathy with right-wing conservatives, the very people I grew up with and am still related to?

  • If I see things from their view, I'll lose my own perspective; I'll violate my own values, my integrity.

  • My own group will reject me for deserting, for conspiring with the enemy.

  • I lose my sense of rightness; I may have to change my mind on some things.

  • Issues become SOOOOO much more confusing: how can "they" have a valid point when my own opposite point is also true? Easy rules vanish.

But oh there is so much more to be gained by just the attempt to understand each other.  Here are some things already bubbling up the more I read about their own struggles:

  • "They" are not so scary: they're PEOPLE just like me, with names, dreams, heartbreaks, and the same bafflement over our intense divides.

  • When competition for being right is set aside, the groups can come together to figure it out with energy put toward solutions instead of the battle.

  • Relationship makes ALL the difference! Many more options become possible when you want to help a friend rather than conquer an enemy.

At the risk of playing the power card of faith, dare I say that even these early learnings kinda sound like God breaking in?  It's pretty convincing:  making friends out of enemies, increased compassion, humility, resolving division....  that there is Jesus-talk.  A bazillion Scriptures describe those same things as what God has done in the past, what Jesus carried out during his brief physical time on earth, and tells anyone who respects his teaching to do the same:  love your enemy.  Bless those who curse you.  Love your neighbor as yourself --and fyi, everyone is your neighbor.It's important to point out that understanding and empathy do not equate to agreement.   Further, compassion does not lower your IQ, it just raises your EQ.  My experience teaches me that seeing another's perspective very often fuels flexibility for crafting a mutually palatable way forward on what had been cemented in conflict.  I am deeply hopeful that as I read the second half of this book, my personal experience will be echoed in that of the author's. Picture me binge reading to the end, bowl of popcorn next to me.For anyone curious to join me in this fascinating read, go find this book!