I claim to want to move deeper into the world of being a peacemaker, a reconciler, a bridge person who wades into the breach to stretch both directions across divides and conflicts. I want to heal enmities and convert them to collaborations. The phrase I’ve coined for this complex place is the Messy Middle. I am learning again how integral empathy is to stepping into the middle of divides rather than hunkering down in one camp or the other. Empathy is not nearly so much an area of knowledge to acquire as a posture to lean into. If only it were another thing to study, a class I could ace! No. This is a whole ‘nuther level of challenge, an essential one for the life I want to live, the beloved community I want to build here at the US-Mexico border, which has become such an icon for division and conflict.
I need to understand both ends of any polarized spectrum that I want to help close, but especially those with whom I think I disagree. Too often I have shoved them into the “bad people” category or at the very least misinformed, unsophisticated, reactive, lazy thinkers, self-serving, ungenerous, etc etc etc simply because they don’t agree with me. Certainly I am none of those things, right? Surely if they would just listen, I could persuade them of how much better my position is and they would flock repentantly to my clan….. right? I want to move from that subtly toxic judgmental stance to one of true listening and learning from those whose thinking doesn’t match mine. It means being willing to hold my conclusions lightly and to quite possibly be changed a little or a lot by what I take in and who I meet. Empathy requires me to notice my own twinges of frustration, disappointment, guilt or agreement as I hear their stories– and not become reactive. Pressing into Empathy calls me to the hard work of letting go of my own need for certainty. It invites me to make room for another’s story. It asks me to dig deep into my own story for the ways my beliefs have been formed, the attachments I have to defending them, the identity I have derived from keeping them. Empathy is the surprising invitation to a generous place where connection and acceptance are not based on ideologies or herd membership, but simply being a living breathing feeling person. Extending empathy to someone else calls out self-empathy first: I get to recognize and gently shed my own armor of earning acceptance from being progressive or conservative, heterosexual or homosexual, educated or not so much, pro-life or pro-choice, woman or man, Democrat or Republican. If I see myself as separate from those labels I will see others that way. The reverse is also dangerously true.
The fascinating thing is that doing so does not erase having a thoughtful opinion! It does not in the least mean parking my brain or my spine at the closest brewpub (as much as I do like craft beer!). In fact, more of both is needed (brain and spine, not beer) to step into and stay in the messy middle. More reflection, pondering, critical thought in the attempt to understand someone else’s thinking. More strength not less, greater commitment, stamina, fire, and yes love. That’s right. Because in the messy middle more heart is also required: not mushy gooey indulgence, turning a blind eye, pretending we’re all the same, or the syrupy gagfest “love” that has given the real deal a bad name. The strong heart of empathy is fiercely committed to seeing the other person neither despite nor because of their current topical opinion but separate from it. That takes enormous strength. It takes courage. It is radically counter-cultural! Empathy is no dumbed-down fragile flower: it is a towering oak, an Iron Man athlete, a superhero.
Because I swim like a rock and get achy knees from running across the street, there are no triathlons in my future. That’s OK! I am enjoying the creative workout of strengthening my empathy muscles. Some days it seems I am only a few steps down the road but already there are gratifying surprises, tiny rewards that woo me forward. Here’s just one: sometimes what seems like a stark disagreement is revealed to share common ground at its core. A desire for integrity, perhaps fairness. Even being afraid or clinging to the need for security can be common ground; I can relate to that in someone else. How we each define security or how to get there may be wildly disparate, but at least I can respect our shared desire. The magical transporting power of empathy moves me from being on the opposite side of the table staring down an opponent to somehow finding myself on the same side of the table peering at what we both hold dear. When there is no longer a person to oppose, that energy can be harnessed to collaborate. It can be such a relief to unclench from protecting my position and extend welcome to another one. So often I have found that the messy middle is a fertile, creative place where good things grow that could never have sprouted at either end.
It all starts with empathy.