Saturday, November 1, 2014

Anger and Empathy

My first professional job out of college was as a counselor in a residential treatment program for chemically dependent adolescents. One young man I remember told some pretty horrific stories of physical abuse by his mother. When she came in for family counseling, it was my task to do the initial interview. Having heard her son's stories, I went into it loaded for bear.

But something unexpected happened. She cried while telling me stories of her own abuse as a child that made her son's pale in comparison. I was still very clear with her about the fact that she could NEVER cause her son harm again, but my anger had dissipated. We became partners in working together to end the cycle of abuse that had been passed down from one generation to the next.

This is one of the reasons I eventually decided to become a family counselor...I learned that people's behavior is most often best understood in context.

By the time I retired as a family counselor, I noticed that I very rarely got angry. While I was comfortable holding people accountable for their behavior, being willing to see things from their perspective aroused a kind of "there but for the grace of god go I" response. It becomes hard to judge someone once you've heard their story.

That's what empathy does.

I say all that because - while I know that President Obama's personality naturally leads him to remain calm - that reaction is bolstered by the fact that his mother was so successful in teaching him to be empathic. He would have been a great family counselor because he always wants to hear everyone's side of the story - even those we tend to blame and label as "the problem."

In this politically polarized climate we live in - our reaction most often is to point at something awful the "other side" did and fuel our anger. There are times when that is warranted. But when it becomes the only way we ever relate to those we disagree with, we lose our empathy, fail to hear each other's stories, and simply demonize our opponents.

I don't know about you, but that pretty much sums up what I think is wrong with our politics today.

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