Women and men are marching in record numbers in cities across the US and around the world in solidarity with the Women’s March in D.C. At the same time, I am busy searching the internet for #metoo messages such as “Make America THINK Again” and “Grab’em by the Ballots: vote.gov.” Then, the moment of truth occurred. I open the Washington Post. First disbelief. The Washington Post chose to publish an article by conservative reporter Mollie Ziegler Hemingway on this day of all days. Yes, I did say conservative, and it was printed in the Post on the very day that women and men were affirming their power and their solidarity in opposing sexism, racism and hate. The article begins like this: “This may seem like an odd moment for saying so, but a year into the presidency of Donald Trump, I’m elated.” My bubble burst immediately. My state of righteous sisterhood decomposed into an angry ball of mush right in the center of my belly. How could a conservative view be featured in the Post on liberal affirmation day? And how could I, a Compassion Cultivation Training facilitator become so upset upon encountering someone else’s elation? Are we wired to feel empathy and compassion for people whom we perceive to be just like us, and feel hatred and separation from people who have different views?
In the 2009 article “From dehumanization and objectification to rehumanization: Neuroimaging studies on the building blocks of empathy” Susan Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at the Princeton University Department of Psychology, answers these questions by arguing that in order to feel empathy or feel with someone else, we must first believe that this someone else is our equal — a human being with intentions, thoughts, and feelings. Then we are likely to recognize and envision them relieved of their suffering. If we view people based on stereotypes, by applying our cultural bias, prejudice and conditioning, we deprive people of their humanity and are not likely to feel empathy towards them. It is time for me to pause, time for me to recognize and accept that it is through my own lens of cultural bias, prejudice and conditioning that I view the world.
Righteousness gave room to a mix of gratitude and empathy; gratitude for the 8 years of President Obama, and the many “wins” and joys he afforded me as a liberal, democrat woman; and empathy for people like Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, who during those 8 years were suffering, the same way that I am suffering now under president Trump. Some of the weight was lifted from my heart in this moment when common humanity was allowed to rise. Just like me, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a political being, whose worldview is shaped by cultural bias, prejudice and conditioning. Just like me, she is affected by her political circumstances. Just like me, she lives in a country where freedom of expression allows us all to speak out, resist and act, based on our values.
According to Fiske, how much we empathize depends on what kind of social attributes we give people. Neuroimaging studies showed that when research participants looked at photographs of people similar to them, social attributes such as warmth and competence were high and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) region of their brain associated with perception was activated. When participants looked at pictures of people unlike them, such as homeless people, their perception was low on warmth and competence, and the mPFC region of their brain failed to activate, indicating a lack of empathy. When Fiske shifted the question and asked research participants to imagine what vegetables the homeless guy might be eating, the emotions of the participants also shifted, and the mPFC regions of their brain activated. This softening of perceptions, from not acknowledging the person at all, to ” they are us, under different circumstances,” is good news. I had come to this place of understanding in terms of Mollie’s article and her views and was able to see her as a human being with her own worldview. Her perspective was very different from mine, but I could see her as a person entitled to her own choices.
One year of President Trump in office has passed. The holidays are gone, and a new year ushered in. As I pause to reflect and contemplate, how will I make it through the days, the months, and the years of this presidency without feeling overwhelmed by the political climate? 3 more years of crazy tweets and dark ages politics… Like-minded friends and colleagues complain: “I told my Dad that if he wanted to spend the holidays with his grandkids, he couldn’t watch Fox news in my house. He replied that we could all learn a thing or two if we watched Fox news!” Can connections endure the political divide? Will a wall of hatred separate us by the end of this president’s political term?
Fiske’s research shines a light on the potential benefits that regular contemplation practices can have in opening our hearts to less stereotyping and more compassionate perceiving of the world. A non-judgmental perception of others, characterized by friendliness, kindness and an open curiosity is key. Feeling another person’s pain and suffering is often a prerequisite to feeling compassion. Now that I have freed myself from “othering” Molly and conservatives, would I be able to move to the next step and actually wish ALL human beings, even the anti pro-choice, even the religious, even the Alt-right; could I mindfully include them in my wishes “to be free from Suffering, to be Happy, to experience Peace and Joy?”
As Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds has shown, we can learn to regulate our empathy by focusing and envisioning the person being relieved of their suffering. Regular mindfulness practices such as focusing and repeating a phrase silently in our mind such as, “may you be happy, may you be free of suffering,” shifts the pathways in our brains from experiencing painful empathy to more rewarding areas of compassion. But if I wish Mollie to be relieved from her suffering, does it mean that I should be ok with a President like Trump? Wouldn’t I be giving up my own beliefs? Should I be rejoicing at Trump espousing the anti pro-choice cause? Should I, like Molly celebrate the undoing of the Clean Power Plan regulations? Should I be sharing Mollie’s hopes that the new tax plan will benefit the middle and lower classes in a trickle-down effect? That’s against my beliefs! Wouldn’t I be expecting Mollie to send the same wishes to me, that I be free from Suffering, Happy… and how could she do that when she is religious and I am not? How could she do that if I am a liberal, and she is a conservative? How would it be possible as I am a middle-eastern Arab immigrant, and she applauded Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?
This may well be where the work begins, where we reassure ourselves that compassion does not mean giving up on our beliefs. We should keep an open mind, question, study, contemplate, thoroughly explore different sides of the argument, and not lose sight of the humanness of the other. It is our moral obligation to realign ourselves with our own core values and come up with our own course of action, that is what a democracy requires from us. This is how we can live and manifest freedom and justice. We wouldn’t be marching today if Trump had not been elected. I know I will judge, critique and misjudge, but I do not give up on finding a clear, strong and courageous manifestation of compassion. I extend a peaceful salute to Mollie, because I accept that she too is desirous of a just and free world. Mollie, I will not give up my beliefs, and I will keep acting my own compassionate way that is very different from yours, but I do see you sister, and you are a beautiful human being, just like me.