Y’all know the iconic phrase, “More cow bell!”…. right? From that over-the-top SNL skit featuring Will Ferrell in a Blue Oyster Cult-esque band where he not just added some background beats but overpowered the music and vocals with that raucous cow bell… but it was never quite enough for the producer who kept demanding “more cow bell!” (Let the reader go find the original on YouTube.) I would like to share a Part 2 from my previous post on Climbing the Empathy Wall. There’s so much more to dig into there, so “More Empathy Wall!” is my humorous guideline. I want to keep climbing that wall to be with those on the other side, to hear their perspectives and possibly even understand. Maybe even make a friend or two! Oh MY!!
I finished reading “Strangers in Their Own Land” the day after that first blog post. It continued to be thought- and feeling-provoking as the author shared her conversations with conservatives in Louisiana who were often suffering from the oil industry’s legacy of chronic and extreme pollution of their beautiful lakes, swamps, coastline, and land. By “suffering” it wasn’t just putting up with bad smells and sights; it meant a high rate of cancers, autoimmune diseases, and disabilities. It meant losing animals, children and spouses to early deaths. It meant tight-knit communities dissolving when families moved away as oil companies bought them out of their properties in order to expand. Yet those who remained were proud of themselves and their communities, committed to stay, and often defended the oil and other industries despite the great harm they brought. These people loved their neighbors, churches, the military, and Trump. The author pressed them to articulate the underlying beliefs and core values that sustained them through such hard circumstances. It was truly an eye-opener. And as I wrote about before, what I read was again strangely nostalgic and familiar.
The author discovered admirable themes among her interviewees. Staying true to their morals was a repeated desire. Core values of integrity and faith were a regular refrain. She uncovered a deep hunger for honor, for the respect they used to have in their communities that had eroded out from under them. Some spoke of feeling vilified just for being a white older male. I heard throughout an ache to reclaim a lost identity. These courageous and conservative people spoke often of being responsible, of working hard, and making enormous sacrifices for what they believed in. There were stories of helping their neighbors through tough times; these seemed like salt-of-the-earth types that I would want around in a crisis. I appreciated that the reader often got to hear the person’s own unvarnished words, for better or for worse. Through them I heard the voices of my parents and relatives. These people were my estranged distant family.
The hardest concept to wrestle with was the idea of there being a line that everyone stood in to get what they had earned. The assumptions for this “line theory” to work were what I mentioned in my previous blog:
• work hard, follow the rules, respect authority and you’ll be rewarded
• everyone has the same opportunity to work and excel…so if you’re not excelling, you’re not working hard enough
• God blesses good behavior and punishes bad
• capitalism and the free market are the gold standard; regulation and social programs are harmful
They had watched their parents achieve the American Dream by following these rules, and now it was their turn. There was only so much to go around, and they had earned the right to their fair share. But somehow things had changed. Consistently the author heard the lament and anger of those who had dutifully worked hard, stayed patiently in this line all their lives … only to see it slow down if not stop moving, to be laid off, denied the security they had been promised, ignored. Discarded. Worse, they saw those other people cut in line ahead of them! People they perceived as not working for it (eg, welfare moms), those benefitting from affirmative action programs, anyone taking government handouts– paid for by their own hard-earned tax dollars. These undeserving people were cutting in line ahead of them, and it wasn’t fair. The pain of deep betrayal, of a bait-and-switch by authorities they had trusted was a profound theme.
That pain evoked my empathy.
I know what it’s like to feel betrayed by leaders I trusted. I too have been blind-sided by bait-and-switch tactics after holding up my end of the deal. The details differ, but the hurt is the same. I started to get it.
I could say much more but I don’t mean to give a book report. It’s tempting to analyze what I agree with and what I don’t from a political or even theological stance. Rather, I highly encourage you to go find this book and thoughtfully read it cover to cover. What I will say is this book helped me in my desire to understand and practice empathy towards those I disagree with. Here are some take-aways for me:
• I was warmed to see that by book’s end, she called those she had spent five years researching her friends. Tea Party but still friends, who asked her to stay in touch and to certainly visit the next time she was in Louisiana.
• I need to hang out with more conservatives, Republicans, and yes, Trump voters—anyone up for conversation (not debate) to better understand our common ground as well as our differences. I need to befriend more government workers to gather in their perspectives.
• While I’m good at asking questions that invite depth, I need practice in trusting that a more complex and inclusive truth will build as I release the certainty on my own rock-solid beliefs. What might it look like to live into one of my favorite Scriptures, “The truth will set you free” ? Is it just my truth such freedom is based on? Oh….right. Perhaps God’s great dream for me, for all of us, is a generous far-flung expansive inclusive truth that is bigger than political parties, class, and culture.
Strangers in Their Own Land helped me climb my empathy wall to see those on the other side. I had assumed they were far different from me, and of course, wrong. Now I realize we are all one family with a lot in common, and that we need each other to heal our national political wounds of division. We need each other to expand the pie together rather than fight over it, to figure out a way for everyone to receive what they need, for dignity to be restored. We need each other. Empathy is our path forward, together.