Healing America: The Pathology & Pathway Out

americaA first-of-its-kind study that ranks nations by empathy puts the United States at No. 7, behind countries ranging from Peru to Korea to Saudi Arabia. While a top 10 finish isn’t bad, Michigan State University’s William Chopik, lead author of the study, notes that the psychological states of Americans have been changing in recent decades – leading to a larger focus on the individual and less on others.” *

‘Individualism overriding empathy’ is one way to view what America’s election was all about. What about me? What about me? A cry heard from every corner. There are many ways and many levels upon which to view our election and its aftermath. Here I would like to address the electoral outcome as a pathological reaction to dramatic change and to propose a treatment for it. On so many fronts, the pace and depth of change has been exponentially breathtaking. Boundaries are shifting all over the place like mercury. Who are we? Who are they? And where is this all going? What does it even mean to be a human being for crying out loud, given how many of us are becoming as much medicine and machine inside our bodies as anything else. Our very identities feel threatened in ways that we hardly understand, but that nonetheless shake us to our core. In response, to use the vernacular, whether we know it or not…We are freakin’ out.

Who even knows what it means to be a family anymore, a gender, a nation? What does it mean to be a Republican now? Depends on which one we ask. Doubt they know themselves. What does it mean to be a Dem? The party of tolerance? Not so much, when we hear good people among my own dear friends and family saying things like “only half the country cares about others.” And they think it is the proverbial Us. We’re good; they’re bad. Us versus Them. Surely they know this is not true, or surely they should. Take a look at this passage from J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir about America’s white working class.

“Jacksonians say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow, and—without exception—stop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives past. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people…”

So careful please whom we cast as people who don’t care. And while we might even consider the smashing to smithereens of both parties as a kind of long overdue creative destruction; still, any among us, of any party or not, who want the privilege of seeing ourselves as openhearted champions of democracy and diversity really need to walk this talk in tolerance of all. Not just the people like us, but the other ones too, the ones whose needs and perspectives may be different from our own. Casting the other as wrong, stupid, or bad is a solution that perpetuates the very pathology of ‘individualism overriding empathy’ that we must heal. The Cambridge dictionary defines an informal usage of pathological as “(of a person) unable to control part of their behavior; unreasonable.” What was pathological, what was out of control and unreasonable – and the losing party and pundits have already told us this themselves – is how many Americans were unable to listen to voices other than their own, how little empathy for the other was in the mix. This pathological ‘individualism overriding empathy’ went both ways and still does.

Doesn’t have to be this way. We have choices. We can go with the solution that is creating the problem of frightening discord and unbearable uncertainty, trying desperately to secure ourselves in our divisive We’re good; they’re bad. Or, no matter which side we are on, we can put ourselves in the shoes of the other, trying hard to see and respond to the cry for help outside of ourselves, in ways that make us feel bigger and better without feeling that we are losing ourselves. We can choose empathy over individualism to heal our nation and ourselves. We can take control – of our minds and behavior. We can call forth the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln would say. And, because we can, we must. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.

So here’s a little help. The goal is not so much to change our minds as it is to calm the lower brain enough to put the higher brain in control of how we respond to the very real and raw feelings of anxiety, depression, even rage, that so many Americans are feeling. The goal is not to take our feelings away but to calm the nerves so that we can think clearly about how we want to behave. Sure, some may say this is their grief process, that the only way out is through, that they are entitled to vent. True enough. And, through this, some will begin to notice the shortcomings of unbridled venting, if prolonged, for themselves and everyone else. Then they can begin to breathe. The day after the election the New York Times provided us with a simple guide to controlled breathing. In through the nose, out through the nose. Belly out on the in-breath. Belly in on the out-breath. Calming the body and the mind, to find and release the better angels of our nature, residing in us all. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

* Is America still an ‘empathic and generous giant’? http://phys.org/news/2016-10-america-empathetic-giant.html

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.


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