The biggest thing I have taken away from this election and the week that followed it is that we all need to learn to empathize if we’re ever going to understand each other. We’ve probably all heard that before but I don’t think we’re paying attention to it. Without being able to see things from someone else’s perspective we’ll never be able to settle our differences, at least not peacefully. Interestingly, humans are soft wired to mirror each other’s feelings. Research shows that the mirror neuron system that we have enables us to feel what other people are feeling as if we are actually feeling it ourselves. So when you observe someone’s anger, frustration, joy or anything else your mirror neurons will light up as if you too are feeling the same way.
This isn’t all that unusual, if you think about it when you’re watching a race for example, sometimes your heart beats faster in excitement and anticipation as you wait for the winner to cross the finish line. Or when you’re watching a movie and see someone scaling a really high building, sometimes your palms will get sweaty because you’re nervous. You’re not engaged in the same physical activity as the people that you’re observing but somehow your body behaves similarly to theirs.
What this means is that this mirror neuron system plays a huge role in the way we interact with each other and interpret each other’s actions and feelings. This system allows us to empathize because it helps us experience the plight of other’s as if it is our own. I’m no scientist but it seems that this mirror neuron system means that we are more capable of being compassionate and sociable than aggressive and self-serving. So if we are basically engineered to empathize with each other then why during this election did we have such a hard time doing so? Could it be that the experiences of others that we observed were just so unknown to us that we couldn’t relate to them? Maybe, but from what we know about this mirror neuron system, you don’t have to have experienced what your fellow human being is experiencing for you to empathize. Odds are you’ve probably never scaled a building but yet your palms still sweat when you see someone else do it. Clearly we can still empathize with those whose experiences are a far cry from what we are used to so why then has there been such a lack of empathy with this election?
I think a huge reason for this is that no one feels like they are being heard so why should they return the favor. If you feel that your voice is undervalued and disregarded by those who you have a difference of opinion with then it makes sense that you would be less inclined to hear those people out. However, the problem with this is that in an attempt to feel heard no one will stop talking and start listening. Of course things get even more complicated when people’s opinions threaten the safety and well-being of others because at that point it seems ridiculous for someone to try to justify such an opinion and it is extremely difficult for someone else to actually let that person do so.
With all that in mind, where do we go from here? Well for starters everyone needs to stop what they’re doing and admit that they are having a hard time understanding how and why people disagree with them instead of only pointing out those disagreements. This welcomes a discussion as opposed to an argument because not only does it invite the other person to explain their point-of-view, it also implies that this conflict is due to a lack of effective communication rather than a complete disregard for the other person and everything that they stand for. And perhaps that last part is a tad optimistic because it suggests that no one is inherently hateful despite the fact that this election has resulted in some very hateful acts. However, I think that people need to go into discussions like these with optimism and with a firm belief in humanity otherwise it becomes difficult to empathize and to believe that there can be a successful outcome.
One thing everyone should challenge themselves to do now is to go out of their way to find out what their opposition really thinks. It’s easy to only expose yourself to articles and talks that reinforce your beliefs – I admit that I have been doing that and although it has comforted me and made me feel safe in a time when I didn’t, I realize that it’s also hindering progress in this situation. Attentively listening to someone speak about something you don’t agree with takes a lot of strength and patience but if none of us try to then we run the risk of becoming so insular and intolerant. I must say though that even this is not a full-proof strategy because sometimes hearing someone explain and justify their beliefs that you disagree with can just intensify your own but I think the chances of that happening greatly reduce the more you consciously remind yourself to empathize and to step into the other person’s shoes no matter how uncomfortable that can feel. I know this is a lot easier said than done – personally, I’m not even sure I am ready to do this – but it is an important step in moving forward and it is one that we all need to take because this strategy will never work if only a handful of people decide to engage in it. This has to be a communal effort.