In a country which has become more polarized, where legislators vote along party lines and rarely cross the aisle, and where political polarization is becoming personal too, how can ordinary citizens find anything in common, let alone create a shared vision for the future? Every day that passes, our communities are becoming more divided. Is there anything that can be done to help people think beyond their own needs and begin to focus on the needs of the country? How can we build a society with competing narratives and come together to feel connected to one another through the bond of citizenship? What role do leaders play in helping to change mindsets currently based on fear to move past that with empathy and understanding? What does it take to think differently, to move away from our narrow mindsets and for leaders to value focusing on national interests instead of their own so that our nation can once again move forward in a more peaceful and productive way?
In an address to a joint session of the United States Congress in 1990, former President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, said that “without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, a more humane society will not emerge.” In order to stop the cycles of anger, hatred, and fear which fuel so much suffering, requires a radical change in our thinking. Without this change we are destined to remain stuck in the quagmire of violence and aggression, passing down to each generation the legacy of violence and guilt which will only perpetuate these cycles. If, on the other hand, we have an honest commitment to transform consciousness, then we will recognize that true leaders are those individuals who are not afraid to look within, to change the way they think, and heal the pain of those around them. An evolution in consciousness is necessary to step out of the psychological dynamics which keep us stuck in a cycle of dehumanizing one another and creating divisions amongst ourselves. Changing our consciousness will enable us to change our mindsets and see this world differently. With a change in mindset, we can create a more peaceful and accepting world. Developing empathy can be the first step leading to change.
Empathy is the ability to place yourself in the shoes of someone else and to understand the psychological landscape from which they came. When we are empathetic, we can connect with the emotion that others are experiencing. It allows us to show compassion for another human beings, even though we do not have the same experiences. Neuroscience is teaching us that empathy can be learned by perspective taking. This is the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally so you can understand what others might want or need. It is the ability to take a perspective in order to gain information by adopting another person’s point of view. When people can take the perspective of someone from an opposing group, one’s ability to empathize can become greater. This is because when we make conscious attempts to understand another’s point of view, we can reshape interactions with other people.
This approach can also support the forgiveness processes. To be able to forgive entails being able to understand someone’s psychological landscape and emotionally feel what they have been feeling. If we can reshape interactions in a more empathetic way perhaps this can also help us to be more forgiving.
Everything around us shapes our beliefs and the way we think. If we recognize the importance of shifting our thinking pragmatically, this can lead to a greater fundamental change, something much deeper and more personal. Taking responsibility for one’s thinking is critical to creating a paradigm shift and to successful processes of political forgiveness. It is a shift which requires an inner conviction. Most importantly you must feel it, and not merely intellectualize about it. If you are not committed to doing that then a lasting change will be elusive. This mindset shift does not happen overnight and is a fundamental process involving emotion more than the intellect.
Changing mindsets is a spiritual pursuit involving politics. Any real change must come from within ourselves and we must embody the change if we want to see it reflected in the world. As Confucius once said, “Virtue begins in the heart, and it ripples outward to transform the family, community, nation and the world.” Great leaders such as Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela are examples of this. They demonstrated a high degree of empathy, a connection to others, a quest for truth and action to foster justice. Instead of letting fear dictate their behavior they recognized that there is more to being human and what gives our lives meaning is the ability to care for one another, not hating or judging one another. Caring for one another, having compassion for one another, this helps us to connect with one another.
Spirituality and politics may seem like strange bedfellows, but they are a very necessary partnership for the healing of humanity. We are living in a world with much division, dehumanization and polarization which cuts us off from each other. We have forgotten our humanity, how to love, how to care for one another. Yet we do live in this world together, we are human beings wanting to live good lives which are joyful and meaningful, and it is together that we will decide how much pain we will put each other through or how much joy we will experience in our lives. To create division is to create pain. To be motivated by fear is to create pain to those we are fearful of. To be motivated by power over someone is to create even more pain. Is this the kind of world we want to create, being motivated by a certain kind of power and fear which hurts others so we can protect ourselves?
We can do better than that. We must do better than that. We have lost our moral compass which takes us to our true north. And our true north is what gives us our greatest happiness. It is what guides us to joining with others, caring about others, and being compassionate towards one another. It is about being human and letting that humanity shine through.