Apostle of Empathy vs. My Monkey Mind

In the current cartoonishly polarized political climate, it seems that one without strong opinions is simply not paying attention. I encounter perspectives that are not only different than mine, but that seem obviously poised to make the world a much worse place, people elevated to positions of power that seem obviously incompetent. I hear the voices of those who support these people, these perspectives, and I find them exasperating. I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t see what I see and, in my stubborn humanness, I want to get angry or to ridicule. My monkey mind grasps at cheap and easy explanations: capital-T They must be wicked or stupid. And in that moment, whatever Their people and policies may or may not achieve, I have indeed made the world worse.

If ever there was an unsympathetic Them, a Them whose ideals were destructive, whose rhetoric inexcusable, it’s the Westboro Baptist Church. In this moving and very important TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares the story of her transformation from Westboro hatemonger into an apostle of empathy. Scorning and mocking her didn’t make her change. People deciding that because her ideals and rhetoric were toxic–as they were–that her reasons for espousing them didn’t matter didn’t make her change. Writing her off as wicked or stupid didn’t make her change. What made her change was being engaged where she was, person to person. Without ever pretending that Westboro’s message was acceptable, people took the risk of getting to know her. Her enemies took on flesh, as it were, and dwelt with her.

My gut remains a very human gut, so I can’t promise my thoughts on those who espouse a different politics than I do these days won’t ever again go to an unhelpful place, nor even that I won’t ever again lose my temper and speak carelessly–I am, after all, a hairy red person whose mouth runs substantially faster than his brain, which has still not left 1995. But I hope to keep trying to engage and understand what leads good people to embrace what seem to me to be obviously bad ideas. And I’ll keep wondering what cherished ideas of mine I’ll one day look back on and think were obviously bad.



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