A couple of months ago, for perhaps the thousandth time, I started an apology to our 6-year-old daughter. We had been in a hurry, and it seemed to me that she had an instinctive capacity to slow things down just when we needed to get somewhere. In response I had become impatient, frustrated and unkind. I knew better, but I had failed — again. And then as I unloaded my apology, I heard her say, “Mom, it’s OK. You’ve never been a mom before. This is your first time. You’re just trying. It’s OK.”
Her response humbled me. She had been able to give me what I had withheld from her just moments before — mercy, compassion and empathy. And I needed it. We all do. In fact, there may be nothing more needed today in our nation and communities.
It’s no wonder former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper’s story and insights have gone viral. Megan spent 20 years on picket lines representing her church’s beliefs with messages of hate towards gays, Jews and those who support abortion. When she finally started being able to engage in civil dialog with her “enemies,” she found that “people on the other side were not the demons I had been led to believe. …” Ultimately, because she could no longer hold on to her “harsh judgments,” she felt she had to leave the faith of her family. What surprised her most was the forgiveness and compassion she experienced from those who had been her former “enemies.”
The lessons she learned are lessons we all need. As she accurately describes about our cultural climate, “We grow more and more divided. We have broken the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ only emerging long enough from our bunkers to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp.” But this will “not take us where we want to go.” Instead, she concludes “we have to talk and listen to people we disagree with,” even when we “can’t fathom how the other side came to their position,” and even when it means “showing empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt.” When we learn to assume good intent, when we learn to ask questions and listen, when we learn to stay calm while clearly expressing the reasons for our beliefs, we can begin to work together to reach the good desires we share.
My experience with our daughter teaches me that the capacity to engage “with the other,” to withhold judgment, and to show empathy is learned first, and practiced best, at home — even if, as in my case, it is my children who teach me. Renowned researcher and psychologist John Gottman believes the key to developing those capacities in our children lies in how we respond to their feelings, especially the negative ones. According to Gottman, emotions like anger, frustration and jealousy mean opportunities for connection and teaching rather than feelings to be stamped out. And so tantrums, frustrations, outbursts, crying and angry words actually become a gateway to greater closeness and character building.
For most of us, this approach to negative emotions is not intuitive. But our repeated efforts to respond with empathy and wisdom rather than just trying to stop negative emotions can enable what we most want — trust, closeness and emotional strength in our relationships. When we start from a place of empathy, we “imagine ourselves in their position and feel their pain.” As we feel with them, we can express our shared feelings with words like, “I can see why you feel that way …” or “I bet that made you feel afraid …” or “That would have hurt me too. …” Once we have felt together, we are better able to teach appropriate behaviors, set limits and guide children in finding solutions.
Even more, we will have made efforts to create a world where we are all better able to take the perspective of others, stay away from harsh judgments and recognize and respect the humanity in the souls around us. This desire makes my own struggling to be better every day worth all the effort.