Jaded Empathy and Other Things that Make Mild Sense 

The community where I did most of my growing up was a typically atypical, moderate-to-severely wealthy, predominately English-speaking, Caucasian  town in New England. Anyone whose ever been to New England knows that I’ve basically just described the whole damn region: small, wealthy towns who love left-leaning politics and probably contain or are at least near a tiny liberal arts college.

So the affluent New England town where I grew up, like most affluent New England towns, was heftily packed with progressive liberals.

And this affluent New England town, also like most affluent New England towns, was minuscule. In elementary school, there were perhaps 75 students in my year. In middle and high school, that number increased to a handful over 100. I think the graduating class might have been 95 or 105 students; I wouldn’t know, I was among those to check out before Pomp and Circumstance had even been rehearsed by the high school band.

All things being equal – which they always are in situations of social interaction and opportunity – I had a good upbringing in a vibrant, enriching environment. I was surrounded by educated, compassionate citizens who deeply cared about improving the state of the world, or at least that’s the image everyone seemed to really want the world to see when gazing reverently at them, which is what most New Englanders expect their audience to do when they’re delivering a sermon on who’s more better and smarter and whatever than whomever, or whatever, else.

But someone forgot to issue me the rose-colored glasses, so where I was supposed to see vibrancy and enrichment I instead identified gaudiness and hypocrisy. This brought on a sort of psychological chafing in my formative years, which grew increasingly irritating as I noticed that the Rightness and Trueness and Goodness I had been raised to believe in was actually not wholly correct, and a little false, or even, at times, just bad.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with what the community around me tended to preach; I was a bleeding-heart justice advocate since before I understood the scope and context of political affiliations. When the War on Terror was officially declared in the early fall of 2001, I stayed home from school and cried. I held back tears while delivering a speech about LGBT rights, through the lens of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophies, during two consecutive MLK Day assemblies. In fourth grade, I got teased for crying when a moose fell into a local swimming pool and drowned due to incompetent rescue strategies. I basically spent all of my childhood crying about social justice while everyone else was crying about hormones and the Hanson Brothers.

Amid all that crying, what I started to notice was that no matter how aligned I felt with the ideas disseminated by the teachers and neighbors and congregation members with whom I interacted, I couldn’t abide by their tendency to oversimplify the Other Side’s perspective. The world always felt more complicated than anyone – including the people whose resolve I admired and opinions I respected – was willing to acknowledge. I started to feel like Jonas, seeing spots of color in an otherwise black and white world.

The world goes deeper than the grayness between black and white; it’s the depth, the viscosity, the self-awareness of what’s between those stark opposites. Every issue has nearly unlimited facets; it’s rarely an easy distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. And each of us is a complex beast traversing a complicated landscape of intricate social and emotional interactions – no one deserves to be ridiculed for where they’ve come to settle in that wasteland.

That’s all people know how to do, though: take a hasty stance then focus the remaining energy on throwing stones.

It’s as if we travel to the top of these enormous peaks of opinion to stand in the blistering wind, shouting to the opposing side that they’re wrong, ignorant, and shameful. But with all that wind, and all that distance, of course no one is ever heard by anyone who isn’t directly to their left (or right), and so this only succeeds in riling each mountain’s inhabitants into a fanatical fervor of screaming, spitting, and shaming.

Meanwhile, down in the valley of that middle-ground, reality is happening. None of us seem to live there, though, or have any interest in so much as a day trip.

 

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