Embracing Empathy, Embracing Liberation

I’ve lately been reflecting on the relationship between liberation, empathy, and how we view others. In our internet age, we so often quickly succumb to mocking others in their very public failures. Whether it is a celebrity or sports star who has made a poor choice leading to public shame or yet another political scandal, we like to sit an have an attitude of judgment of the other person. With the Internet, this becomes more public, vocal, and viral. Shame is embedded in the Internet and our attitudes continue to foster it. It’s even led to a book, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

I’ve recently been working through Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. This is the first book of hers I’ve read, and it’s been significant for me in a few personal ways. She spends time discussing the relationship between shame and how we view others, and ourselves. She purports that if we look at others, whether someone close or a distant stranger, as doing the best that they can, empathy can be built in our world and the judgment of others (and self) that so often leads to shame will dissipate.

It’s a minor shift in thought, but it’s significant for how we view ourselves and others. Perhaps the most significant trigger for frustration and anger for me is driving. Being stuck in traffic is seemingly the most infuriating and stressful moments of my life. I’m exaggerating, sure. But in those moments it’s “that jerk driving slow in the left lane” or “that ass who cut me off.” I get angry. And then I get angry at myself that I got angry. And then I say, “I’m stupid for becoming angry.” As Kierkegaard says, Once you label me, you negate me. In those moments of negativity toward others and myself, I fail to let myself see the beauty in all of us. Yet if I can start with the perspective that those other drivers are doing the best they can, that they too want to get home quickly, then I should be able to stay calm(er) and avoid a poor perspective of them, and of myself.

Adding to this, not only does the shift to viewing others as doing their best encourage empathy, but it also levels the playing field. That is to say, that person making that poor choice could be me. I’m not far removed, and I’m not that different. This minimizes judgment and allows us to focus on what is not how I think it should be.

This perspective is liberating. It’s liberating for Self and it’s liberating for others, and thus it’s  liberating for communities pursuing equality. Brown quotes one of my favorite sayings from the great existentialist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, What do you consider most humane? To spare someone shame. What is the seal of liberation? To no longer be ashamed in front of oneself. Liberation is the opposite of negation. It’s embrace, not rejection.

We live in a shame filled world. It is our duty to change that, and it’s a mindset. It requires listening, especially to those with experiences much different from our own. Different lifestyles immediately cause use to have judgmental attitudes and we can say things and act towards the “Other” in manners which cause shame. Yet if we learn to listen, then the reciprocal shame that exists between people can dissipate.

And “doing the best they can” is not an excuse for poor decisions. It’s a recognition that one is not defined by their mistakes and shortcomings. It’s a pathway toward empathy and helping each other becoming better Selves.

The escape from shame is the embrace of liberation – to be who you are. If we could all just help each other a little bit more, then equality is pursued, love is shared, and peace can be had.

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