That Last Question

The last question at Sunday’s debate was a rare flicker of light in this dark election cycle. Undecided voter Karl Becker asked the candidates to name one positive thing they respect about the other. I love the question because it forces us to reach inward and find empathy for the “other.” If only it had gone viral like that red sweater guy.

Just think where we could be as a country if we all asked ourselves the same question when faced with views completely opposite our own. On a daily basis, I am shocked by the statements I see coming out of the mouths (or at least the Facebook pages) of people I hold dear. But then I remember –these are the same people who drove hours to attend my father’s funeral, or supported my mother during my father’s long illness. These are good people, and if asked, I could name many qualities I respect about them.

Living in these polarized times has taught me to adopt the mantra “maybe both sides are a little bit right.” Digging in and dismissing “others” didn’t work for me. I lost a college friend after she took a hard right turn politically. Her father died on 9/11, and after my own father died, I wished I could have called her. I noticed that I didn’t like the way I felt after heated arguments with co-workers, friends and family. There had to be a better way. A work colleague who can get my blood boiling told me, “You know, if all the world leaders would just sit down and talk about their kids we’d solve the world’s problems.” Now we do just that – talk about our kids. I’ve gained a friend and lost an adversary.

We can all agree (I hope) that both sides have legitimate concerns. A harder task is separating those concerns from the candidates to see, really see, the people demanding change. Whether you call it “taking back the government” or “civic engagement,” bringing more people into the process is a good thing. We can find common ground when we tune out the rhetoric and conspiracy theories. We just have to trust each other enough to look for it.

We hear a lot about the intellectual isolation created by technology. While it does allow us to isolate ourselves from contrary points of view, technology also gives us the tools to hear voices inaccessible before the rise of podcasts, satellite radio, blogs, Youtube and digital books. This is the good media – it enriches our lives, brings us closer and creates better citizens. With the tap of a finger we can listen to female Muslim comediennes, African-American coders, refugees fleeing terrorists, Arab feminists, immigrants, veterans, Native Americans and countless other diverse, individual voices that negate the stale narratives propped up by those unwilling to listen.

The brave act of listening is what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls crossing the “empathy wall.” Hochschild left her comfortable cradle of liberalism, University of California at Berkeley, to spend five years listening in the Louisiana Bayou for her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild turned her “alarm system off” and we can, too. Her work underscores the human truth that we all want to be seen for who we are, not as we are defined by others. Yet we can’t ask to be heard if we are not willing to listen. And when listening is as easy as turning on our phones, why wouldn’t we?

Some will say living with empathy is too hard. It isn’t easy, but we face greater challenge on a daily basis. We make small talk on trains and airplanes, knowing that any second it could all end in a blast. We try to stay healthy, knowing we could receive a devastating diagnosis at any time, most with no explanation, no cure and no symptoms until it is too late. We rebuild after natural disasters, care for the suffering, support service men and women overseas, raise children in an uncertain world. None of this is easy, but we have no choice. The same is true for empathy. Without it, we are destined to stay where we are in this election. Regardless of political affiliation, we all agree that we do not want to be in this place as a country ever again.