Sometimes it seems that life is indeed stranger than fiction. This is how I feel about the 58th presidential election. With that said, I am make making an appeal to you.
Vote for democracy. Vote for Hillary.
First, let me tell you a story. When my daughter Sophie was three years old she chose to be Buzz Lightyear for Halloween. I was so delighted that at least for one season we avoided the princess theme. She was so cute standing there with her wings, shouting “To infinity and beyond.”
From then on the characters of Toy Story had a very large presence in our household. We had the Woody and Jessie dolls, of course. And, yes, like Andy’s mom, we eventually donated those toys in a box to the local church. When Toy Story 3 came out in 2010 my daughters were almost too old see it with their friends. Instead, we went as a family and snuck in the back row of the amphitheatre above all the littler kids. Toy Story 3 is by far the creepiest of the trilogy, which took me totally by surprise.
Here’s the quick synopsis. It’s where Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the cheerful toy gang are destined for an uncertain future as Andy, their human owner, goes off to college. Instead, the toys find their fate in the Sunnyside Daycare Center, where a mad doll, Big Baby, and a sociopathic bear, Lotso (Lots O Huggin’ Bear), run a prisoner-of-war like operation.
It’s the typical hero’s journey formula. The good toys ban together in an underground resistance, attempting to free all the other toys from the dictatorship. But there is a disturbing scene that could give nightmares to any three to five year old who goes to bed with their beloved stuffed animals. It’s where Woody and his pals find themselves close to the end of their lives, trapped in a garbage truck, and scooped into a trash incinerator. Woody, realizing that the end is in sight, holds his friend’s hands in a gesture of love and solidarity.
As they are about to be consumed by flames, I’m clutching the arms of the seat. I blurt out “Ohmygod. It’s the holocaust!” My Sophie turned to me and said, “Jeez, Mom! Calm down.”
When we walked out of the theater my family ribbed me for being overly sensitive. I have a reason. My mother came over from West Germany after World War II to make a better life for herself. She was not a victim of the holocaust, but she suffered the ravages of war as a small child, hiding in bomb shelters and living in poverty. The cloak of her cultural history enveloped all of us growing up. Learning about Nazi Germany was a gradual unfolding for me, at times quite distressing, and too horrible to comprehend. Ok, so maybe I am sensitive.
Life is Stranger than Fiction
And here I am – a half a century later no less, watching a new cultural scene unfold before my eyes, where it’s entirely possible that the next leader of the United States of America espouses ideology so dangerous, so incendiary, that we are at risk of eventually losing our basic freedoms and human rights. I’m not being dramatic. There are historical precedents in history of other countries’ slow walk toward fascism. A Trump presidency could open the floodgates, or the door for the next leader in line, perhaps someone brighter, more polished, better contained, and highly calculating. That individual could even be someone qualified, with a history of public-service, with a facility for diplomacy, and a basic understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But this future person is also power hungry, racist, misogynist, exclusionary, paranoid, and harbors an extremist mentality that serves not the many but the few. It is possible.
It doesn’t take a psychologist like myself to discern that Donald Trump has a severe narcissistic personality disorder, with seriously underdeveloped social and emotional intelligence, and an inability to self-regulate or take perspective. But he certainly has a skill: persuasion. And he appeals close to 40- 45% of the US population. Some of my friends are in that cohort. My friends are kind, intelligent, and want the best for their families and their communities. They strive for safety, success, and happiness. And yet it is very difficult for me to understand how the people I admire and love could support such an unstable and dangerous candidate. For the most part, I’ve concluded that they are making the anti-Hillary vote. I can understand that as well. People either hate the Clintons or they hate what they think of as the elite politician and “the establishment.” Many of my friends wanted Bernie Sanders. I listened to Bernie recently and he tells his supporters to go look at the facts and issues (yes, I know it’s hard to find unbiased assessments), and stay out of the myopic personality contest that has hijacked the media and the debates. It seems like wise advice but I don’t think many people are in a state of mind to step back and deeply look at the important issues facing the American public and our children’s futures, not to mention the future of our planet and all of its inhabitants. (Are you aware that a third of the Great Barrier Reef disappeared this year? Or, that we have the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation happening in Syria?)
Love Your Neighbors
Second, as some of you know, I’m working on a project on kindness. This means that I’m taking a hard look at empathy and listening to lots of people’s stories. It’s been heartening and also eye-opening. There are cultural trends tracked by various surveys. Some show that narcissism is on the rise while levels of empathy are on the decline. It makes sense that those go hand-in-hand, as one goes up the other goes down.
One measure of empathy used in social science research (by Professor Mark Davis) is called the Interpersonal Reactivity Scale, a rather apt title for our times. We should all take it. Four components of empathy are identified. Two relate to cognitive empathy and two relate to emotional empathy. The questions are stated in positive and negative directions, on how well (or not) the item describes you on a five point scale. Here’s a worthwhile glance at all four categories to give you the flavor.
Perspective taking is about the ability to adopt the perspectives of other people and see things from their point of view while suspending your own feelings or opinions (that involves inhibitory control, too). Examples or questions include:
- I’m sure I’m right about something so I don’t waste much time listening to other people’s arguments. (-)
- I believe that there are two sides to every question and I try to look at them both. (+)
Another component is fantasy which is a kind of “imagination empathy” where you can identify with emotions and experiences of people or characters in movies, novels, and stories. (Just as I can identify with the plight of Toy Story’s characters.) This is the ability to mentally place yourself in another’s shoes. Stories are excellent ways to cultivate empathy. (Listening to real stories on The Moth radio hour is one good way to do this.)
- I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel when I watch a good movie. (+)
- Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me. (-)
Empathic concern is about being able to arouse feelings of warmth, tenderness, and concern for others. Relating to the suffering of another person and wanting help is called compassion. We have the cellular blueprint for empathy, kindness and compassion otherwise the human race would not have survived.
- Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (-)
- I am often quite touched by the things that I see happen. (+)
On the other hand, we can also naturally experience personal distress or the feelings of anxiety and discomfort that can happen from watching another person’s negative experience like a person in pain for instance (Consider the plight of Syrian refugees when you hear them tell their story, being homeless on the street begging, or when you kid is writhing in pain after breaking a leg. DIfferent situation trigger different responses.)
- Sometimes I feel helpless when I’m in the middle of a very emotional situation. (+)
- When I see someone get,hurt, I remain calm. (-)
Obviously, empathy is an extremely important inner quality and it’s something that develops over time through supportive and loving relationships and experiences in life. It’s also something that can be cultivated. That’s the hopeful message. We can actually train the neural networks that stream through our brains – through various practices that include:
- loving kindness meditation and reflection
- cultivating positive emotions
- getting to know people who aren’t like you
- considering other points of view
- prioritizing health and wellness
Love Trumps Fear
Third, it is very difficult to tap our empathic roots when our brains are hijacked by fear. I believe that many Americans are in a constant state of fear and feel threatened, whether that is real or imagined. And that’s why Donald Trump is so good at persuading people that we live in an unsafe and dangerous world. He’s triggering the limbic brains of many people, poking at their emotional hot seat.
What happens in such a state of mind? When the mind perceives a threat, the brain’s amygdala (our alarm bell) goes off. When that alarm system is constantly on, it’s very hard to access the other parts of the brain that can regain some control (the prefrontal cortex or the executive functions). For instance, when this “inner coach” is accessed, you are able to calm down, take perspective, and regulate difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Think about a child in a temper tantrum. The only thing that can help that screaming child is to coach him on how to calm down until he learns to do this on his own. Over time the child gets better and better at managing emotions and can “reset.” Of course, we all get stuck in fear based responses no matter what age. Life is hard. But the basics still apply.
Get Some Headspace, Open Your Heart
So friends, those of you who are on the fence, maybe it’s time to just sit still for a little bit and really take some time to think through what your vote might really mean for you and the American people. In finding a quiet space and lowering the mind chatter to step back from fear-based thoughts, there may be an opening to consider what is at stake. This is not an election of Republicans versus Democrats, this is a vote about an extreme and reckless ideology that can turn back hard-earned progress (women’s rights, civil rights, and human rights to name the biggies).
The outgoing president, whether you liked him or not, once said that our nation suffers from an empathy deficit. He’s not making that up. We are suffering from an empathy deficit, as surveys show, and it’s largely because we are locked in our limbic brains, in self preservation mode, and with a very narrow focus (me vs. them). Let’s step back and calm ourselves down and think rationally and reasonably about the greater good (me and we).
We all want what is best for ourselves and our loved ones. Yet, we also have to stretch ourselves and consider the existence and needs of others who may not be like us. We are a nation of immigrants. I am the daughter of one – the daughter of a once 19-year old German girl who courageously came from a country that had extremist ideology with tragic consequences on an unfathomable scale. That doesn’t mean that my mom or myself was a Nazi. Just as Muslim families who immigrated here are not extreme terrorists. Or that we have to build a wall to keep people out. Let’s get some bearings here.
Oh, and remember when a certain wall was knocked down? And a good thing, too.
Empowered Parenting & Leadership
If anything this election has questioned what it means to be a leader and how we lead in our daily lives. Parenting is a good place to start. People are influenced by the kind of parenting they had. There’s solid research that shows the healthiest parental-child relationships arise when the parenting style is authoritative (in contrast to permissive or authoritarian). This authoritative style includes: love and concern, consistency, clear expectations, respect, support for healthy striving, room for failure and new learning, and creating atmospheres where social, emotional and cognitive flexibility can grow. In contrast, authoritarian/overly strict or laissez-faire/permissive parenting results in major problems, interferes with the development of healthy attachment, and negatively impacts self-confidence, focus and attention, empathy, overall well-being, and life success. An authoritative style fosters social and emotionally intelligent children who can one day grow into kind, effective and inspirational people.
An emotionally and socially intelligent style is good for leadership, too. Being benevolently authoritative involves being kind, consistent, showing concern for others and mutual respect. It involves being courageous, confident, calm and cultivating an environment of safety, while at the same time setting limits, clear expectations, and accountability. This kind of leadership allows for growth, diversity, compassion, collaboration, creativity and innovation. People are craving this. Social and emotional intelligence is the hottest topic in corporate leadership and workplace education these days, not to mention schools. Somehow we need to infuse our political system with it. But we’ve got a bad seed running for the highest office. That he got this far is a travesty and a global embarrassment.
I’m exhausted from this presidential campaign to be honest. I can’t even be nice right now, my limbic brain is buzzing with fear for the future. Here’s the question:
You may not like Hillary, but do you really want an asshole leading this nation?
It’s hard to fathom that this will be the ninth election in which I will be voting. To me it is the most important election to date and it’s not about party lines. It’s the first presidential election in which my daughter, my little Buzz Lightyear, can vote. It’s an important milestone for her, and it is for all of us. What an election to start off with.
When we think about our families, our neighborhoods, and the community of the entire United States of America and beyond, the question of empathy matters and that question of leadership matters. We are all not that separate from one another. In fact, we are not separate at all. I beseech you to find a calm still place in your hearts and minds. Last thing we need is to be scooped up into an incinerator of ideology.
More to explore
This says it all:
So much of our reactions and behaviors are unconscious. The Hidden Brain podcast gets it.