I have a tendency to see things in black and white. Something is right or it is wrong. People are good or they are bad. There are instances where this is a strength — I have a strong value system and I tend to do what I think is right, even when it is not easy. However, living within a rigid moral binary can be detrimental to me and the people I interact with.
In the past, I would decide my opinion on an issue and draw a hard line. Anyone who was on the other side of that line was wrong, and it was my duty to enlighten them. My hardline attitude strengthened as I tried to navigate the 2020 presidential election, a deeply polarized political realm perched atop a minefield of social justice issues.
I was unwilling to listen to those who disagreed with me on any minutiae. If I decided there was one way to solve a problem, anyone who suggested another method was wrong and didn’t really care about the issue at hand. I isolated myself from people who meant well because they weren’t willing to go as far as I was.
I kept drawing lines, and they deepened into valleys, and suddenly I found I was an island. Not only were the people with differing views out of reach, but there was no longer any room for them to stand with me.
The thing I was missing — something I’d neglected in my misguided efforts to do the right thing — was empathy. I made no effort to understand why people on the “other side” believed what they did; instead, I wrote them off as ignorant and unchangeable. I gave up.
Recently, though, I have been nurturing my empathetic side back to life. I try to enter conversations willing to be open to others’ ideas. I try to listen to what people are saying, rather than waiting for them to stop talking so I can speak. I try to put myself in their shoes, living the lives they have lived and feeling what they have felt. I do my best to trace their opinions back to the source, to understand not only their position on a particular issue but them as a whole.
What I have found through practicing empathy is that many people who seem inherently ignorant or hateful are driven instead by something different: fear. They are scared of things — and people — being different from what they know, and instead of trying to learn why those differences exist, they run from them. Where they could use empathy to combat that fear, they instead let it grow into prejudice or even hatred.
It can feel strange and wrong to empathize with someone who is being hateful — like a betrayal of the people or causes you care deeply about. But empathy is not meant to be a replacement for accountability. Just the opposite, in fact. Explaining why someone is a bigot and then doing nothing is not empathy, it’s apathy. The key to creating lasting change is understanding why people think or feel the way they do, then using that understanding to have meaningful conversations.
There are some issues where the lines I once drew still exist, and always will. I believe that climate change is an emergency that is our duty to address. I believe transgender people should have access to gender-affirming healthcare. I believe that no one should be hungry or homeless, no matter the circumstances that got them there. On issues like these, I will not budge. The lines are there for a reason.
These days, though, there are some lines that I’ve allowed to blur. I realized that the people I once considered my enemies are not pure evil, just as I am not pure good. We are all human, and we would all do well to remember that.