an empathetic life: navigating opinions and ideas that disagree with your own

When I was younger my mom used to call me a chameleon. She’d say I took on the traits of whoever I was around in an effort to understand the world and the people around me. I lived to discern others and know them for who they were. This has carried into my adult life–although maturity has made me sure of who I am–and drives me to live life from an empathetic point of view, working always to recognize others, how they feel, how they live, and why they are who they are.

The most wonderful and difficult part of living with an empathetic disposition is you can see the views from all sides, right or wrong, good or bad, you don’t find it difficult to step into another’s shoes. In that spirit, I don’t understand the anger, bitter animosity, and downright disrespect people, from all sides, have towards one another in these times of dissent and disagreement.

When I look around me each day, do I see my ideal America? No — nor should I. America is a nation of 325.5 million people. To look around and assume this nation should automatically resemble a nation I inherently want is not only foolish, but selfish. To assume that every person should believe what I do, think what I think, is a path towards frustration and hatred for my fellow man.

No matter my thought on an issue or topic in this country, I recognize and believe in the right of every single person to hold a dissenting view to my own. Would I encourage dialogue regarding the issue? Absolutely, but let us remember the definition of dialogue:

di•a•logue (noun) an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement (dictionary.com)

So firstly, it is an exchange. The opposition to my opinion or idea has just as much right to voice their thoughts as I to mine.

Secondly, a desire to reach an amicable (I stress amicable, especially these days) agreement or settlement, which includes the age old ‘agree to disagree’ resolution.

Without dialogue, open and amicable, we cannot hope to proceed forward. Holding hands over our ears and shouting our beliefs will only hurt this country and its people in the end. In truth, the more open your ears are to the world, the more likely other’s ears will be open as well.

But even with dialogue, we must never expect to get 100% of what we want. That will never happen. 325.5 million people. Each with a unique experience and opinion about the current state of affairs. No one will get exactly what they want. But we can work to find middle ground, as difficult as that may be. We can hold fast to the idea that compromise is possible and the best way to lead this nation. Compromise, a foundational piece of America, going back to the very beginning.

#tbt to the 1790s

Americans have never agreed on anything wholeheartedly (except that we all want to be Americans). At the birth of this nation, two oppositional forces were at work, the Federalists and the Republicans (not the same as today’s parties, don’t get them confused).

Federalist – ex: Alexander Hamilton & John Adams, believed in centralized federal government to keep the union strong and a national economy, were Pro-British

Republicans – ex: Thomas Jefferson & James Monroe, believed federal government could become too powerful in ability to levy taxes, raise armies, and incur national debt to foreign nations, were Pro-French

From this country’s founding days, there have been disagreements and dialogues about what this nation should be. America is a result of compromise and will not thrive if that founding characteristic does not continue to hold us together over all others. In the end, the two parties compromised to create the constitution as we have it today, and Hamilton got his plan for federal assumption of debt while Jefferson got the Bill of Rights included in the constitution.

But, this did not lead to a perfect ending. Ideologies on opposite ends of the spectrum left the founders alienated from one another in professional and personal life. Those that were able to come together and create something a beautiful as American democracy found themselves pulled apart by personal grudges and inability to see the sides/views of one another. It is necessary to examine the conclusions to these resentments they held against one another, so we do not risk making the same mistakes.

The End Results – And the Choices We Face

Below there are two versions of the same story-party politics and personal grudges-with two very different endings. The question we face is, which do we want to follow?

Jefferson/Adams: The two were close friends, worked together to draft the Declaration of Independence, and traveled through Europe together. However, Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter to James Madison that John Adams and him were pulled apart by “different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading.” As Jefferson became president, the two stopped talking altogether, political rivalry taking precedent over personal affections. Ten years went by before they resumed correspondence and were able to bury the hatchet and become friends once more, famously dying within hours of each other on July 4th, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration.

Hamilton/Burr: Aaron Burr, Vice-President under Jefferson, was angered at comments Alexander Hamilton made regarding Burr’s run for New York Governor. Hamilton refused to apologize, making more inflammatory statements about his rival to compound the first. On July 11th, the two met at Weehawken Heights, and Burr shot and killed Hamilton in an illegal duel. A sad ending to a personal and politically fueled rivalry.

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, also political rivals who both served on Washington’s cabinet, were never able to reconcile their differences, in part due to Hamilton’s untimely death, and also that both men were insatiably stubborn. George Washington, a neutral force between them while serving as president, said to Hamilton: [he hoped] “liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another… Without these I do not see how the reigns of government are to be managed, or how the union of the State can much longer be preserved.”

I do not claim to be a historian by any means, but I am a lover of history and the lessons it teaches us. If we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past, than we are not worthy to inherit the future. Take the heated passion of the founding fathers, a passion that is very alive today, and learn, grow, live by the lessons their history show us.

A Conclusion with a Solution

The point here is not to say that the federal/state government should have more power, what our economic policies should be, or whether the government should have a say in social issues. The purpose here is not a dialogue of issues — rather a call for dialogue.

Live empathetically. Understand that a twenty-something in New York will view this country differently than a farmer in Iowa, than a mother living on Chicago’s south side, than a union worker in Michigan, than a retiree in Florida, than a Vietnam vet in Arizona, than an active duty soldier in North Carolina, than a preacher in Montana, than a college student in Colorado, than a staffer on Capitol Hill, than an artist in California–America is diverse in the most beautiful, wonderful way. But not diverse like you want it, it is a messy diversity, with people who don’t agree with you, that you may think are bigoted, or hypocritical, or you may think are just wrong.

And all of these people make up this country. And the sooner we all take our hands off our ears and hear one another, work to understand one another, live for a moment in someone else’s life, we can go forward together, regardless of politics and opinions, simply as people. Loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, as ourselves.

With ears, eyes, and a heart wide open to you,

xx raina xx

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