Maintaining Empathy in the Midst of Deep Conflict

by Sherry Olander, licensed DEI Trainer & Consultant

There are a lot of emotions running through our country this week. Grief, Anger, Sadness, Confusion, Envy, Hate, Suicidal Urge, Shame, Fear…

I’ve been reading posts and articles on Facebook – watching videos, and feeling so much empathy for all the victims, friends, family, and also those who are strangers to all involved, but still feel passionately about the terrible and tragic status quo we find ourselves in. There were many things I “liked” but refrained from sharing. I have some friends who are lashing out in defense of police to a point that seems as if they are denying that the frequent killing of black men in these situations is a problem. I wanted to engage them, to clarify: Is that what they are saying? Or are they only trying to defend a profession that they or someone they love works in, or defending the honor of those in the police force who are just, brave, and compassionate?

I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. There is definitely a problem. I’m saying that it’s not as simple as we wish it were, and we need to remember that all involved, always, are HUMAN. That means imperfect, struggling, and guaranteed to make mistakes.

I have seen articles referencing statistics that claim that more white people are killed by police than black people, as if that is addressing the issue at all. I’ve read an article about a young white boy who was shot by similarly over-reacting police, and whose family is wondering where the outrage is for their son. I have seen posts expressing hatred toward cops, and I’ve seen posts expressing hatred toward the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’ve seen a video by a black man describing his experience of a completely polite and nonviolent interaction with a police officer.

Overall, what I am seeing is the very human tendency to take sides and rally to a tribe. But why can’t we see that — as much as we want to be able to draw clear lines of good vs. bad and us vs. them, as comfortable as that might make us feel for a moment — it is both impossible and impractical to do so? Honestly, we should leave that sort of divisiveness to the sports field, because that kind of attitude is generally a downward spiral, and better left in a forum where there is timer to tell us when it’s over.

More of the articles have been in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Most people I am friends with have an awareness that there is a serious problem, that racism still exists, and the young black men in our country are paying a terrible price. There are articles about white privilege, and lists of what white people who want to be allies can do to help. Most of all though, people are just overwhelmed by these tragedies that seem to be happening more and more often … and they want to DO something.

The Dallas shooting following so quickly after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile has both “sides” feeling attacked. But what if I could convince you that there aren’t sides in this? What if I could convince you that the problem lies both within and around all groups of people who are trying to live their lives as best they can in a society wrought with pain and suffering? Would that make you pause at all, and try to work together to figure out what the problem is, and to fix it, so that tragedies like these STOP occurring?

Of all the things I’ve read, of all the articles I’ve liked, the only one I shared was the commentary from Philando Castile’s school. I chose this one because to me, it is the only one that contains the key to even starting to end all the madness. It is a simple, short article about a beloved friend and coworker. It could be anyone who was killed in any way. What it does is give a snapshot and a window into the life of this man. It reminds us that he was human and real, and probably just like many people you know and care about. Here is an excerpt, with a link to the full statement:

Statement from Saint Paul Public Schools about Philando Castile
Saint Paul Public Schools and its staff grieve the tragic death of a former student and current employee, Philando Castile.

Colleagues describe him as a team player who maintained great relationships with staff and students alike. He had a cheerful disposition and his colleagues enjoyed working with him. He was quick to greet former coworkers with a smile and hug.

One coworker said, “Kids loved him. He was smart, over-qualified. He was quiet, respectful, and kind. I knew him as warm and funny; he called me his ‘wing man.’ He wore a shirt and tie to his supervisor interview and said his goal was to one day ‘sit on the other side of this table.’”

Those who worked with him daily said he will be greatly missed.

I know that there are people who are so conditioned by their lives that they cannot break free from the racism, and cannot be part of the solution. I am not denying that, nor am I talking to those people. I am talking to the people who care, and who believe that everyone, regardless of skin color, deserves respect and justice. I am calling to the people who want to take sides because it seems to make more sense, to tell them: It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not that simple; please remember that and keep that in mind. I am not putting myself outside of this group either, because I, like most of us, want to be on the right side, but it’s really just never that simple.

Thousands of people die every day. Tragedies and horrific things are occurring all over the world every day. It is overwhelming to understand. Our psyches aren’t meant to support the awareness of tragedy at that level, so we disengage, detach, and take sides in an effort to make sense of it all. I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. There is definitely a problem. I’m saying that it’s not as simple as we wish it were, and we need to remember that all involved, always, are HUMAN. That means imperfect, struggling, and guaranteed to make mistakes.

I’ll tell you that there are no ways to group people according to race, religion, political view, socio-economic status, or sexual preference that won’t include individuals on both sides of a spectrum. No matter which way you try to group people, there will be some in the group who are kind and compassionate most of the time, and some in the group who are cruel and insensitive most of the time. In any group there are some who will usually admit wrongdoing when it happens, and some who usually will not. And between both ends of the spectrum, there a thousand shades in between. If you can admit and understand this truth, then maybe we can start a new trend where our desire for equity and justice becomes the true focus.

We’re so distracted by defending our side these days that so many people are blind to the obvious problems that exist in our society. If we refuse to consider a problem because it threatens our notions of what our side represents, no problems will get solved, and more will be created. Being scared, confused, and angry about what is happening in our society is a very uncomfortable place to be. But it is the place we should be because what is happening is tragic and dangerous. It needs to stop. No one wants innocent people to die, but they are dying. This is a problem, and no amount of excuses is going to make it go away. We have to face it and fix it, regardless of which side we’re on.

Sherry Jean Olander, LMT

Sherry Jean Olander, LMT is a licensed Dynamic Emotional Integration® Trainer and Consultant, and she’s an instructor at Empathy Academy. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and offers DEI workshops and trainings throughout Central Virginia. Having practiced as a Licensed Massage Therapist for 16 years, Sherry is excited to share the emotional, empathic, and elemental wisdom work in DEI. Sherry also offers in-person individual consultations at her Charlottesville office, and online through video conferencing. Her specialties in DEI include elemental balance, rituals, and the embodiment of the Empathic Mindfulness practices. Visit Sherry’s website: Quintessence Living.

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