Good, Activism, Empathy and the Peacemakers

Author’s disclosure: nonviolence, kindness, communications are some attributes that comprise my Sense of Good. Please remember all attributes are, in part, aspirational. I am a student of these attributes and certainly not a master.

Are we living in the age of “post-activisim”? Whenever my work dries up and I can’t find traction in this task of writing on The Good Decision I know there is an insight somewhere inside of me that struggles to find its way out. New York Times writer Eli Saslow wrote an article on the homeless encampment in Phoenix and the relationship of the homeless residents with the small business owners in the neighborhood. The article was moving because he devoted equal sympathy to the business owners and homeless camp residents. The article was so powerful that the journalist was subsequently interviewed for a followup in the New York Times and the conversation was about empathy in journalism. In describing Mr. Saslow’s approach Megan DiTrolio, the Times interviewer, writes: there are no winners or losers, heroes or villains. There are just people, struggling with their circumstances. In an interview, Mr. Saslow shared more about his reporting: how he landed on the idea; the ethical considerations he weighed; and why he thinks it’s crucial to approach journalism with a deep sense of empathy.  With that short sentence my writers block dissolved for the moment; a movement of fresh air and a sliver of light in dark time.

Whenever a culture goes toxic in its communications and begins the slide to violence it is time to harvest the sacred cows. Outside the context of religion I use to term ‘sacred cow’ to describe aspects of our feelings and behavior we either don’t or actually refuse to examine. In Hinduism the term refers to a reverence that is integrated into their understanding of Krishna. In the secular world of democracies when using this term I refer to hard line positions of ideology which brook no criticism and ultimately lead to violence. I am talking about the ‘isms‘; all of them. Idealism, socialism, communism, patriotism, racism, activism and so forth. These terms for better and worse call for adherents and then either intentionally or unintentionally lay the groundwork for the terminal ism; ‘schism’. We are a nation and culture on the precipice of a patchwork of schisms. “A house divided cannot stand” is a quote from the Gospel of Mathew and our own Abraham Lincoln in his campaign speech to the Republican State Convention. The schism is almost certainly a symptom of the breakdown in empathy in society.

The empathy of Eli Saslow’s journalism represents ultimately the bridge material that can build the span of connectivity in communications that we need today. Empathy begins with individual commitment to being vulnerable to the feeling states implicit in every human crisis. I designed The Good Decision in part around the troubling question of how can people be kind-hearted in some dimensions of life and yet be cruel in their activism or politics. I have come to understand I have been too vague in expressing the process implicit in this decision model. Subordinating your decisions in community, politics, or even service without question to any hard line position invariably leads to you being a person divided and requiring within yourself an emotional and intellectual partition. Every partitioned part of you is a subtraction from the scope of your capacity for empathy. Mr Saslow’s article was whole-hearted and I anticipate it cost him in emotional stress as well as required great courage to maintain his integrity and empathy. Our wisdom and spiritual traditions admonish us to ground ourselves in good what ever the vocabulary and ritual may be. Internal schisms are injurious to health and the enjoyment of life and invariably are externalized in community and society in larger scale leading to violence. 

I am convinced a ‘good world’ can only begin with you and your disciplined decisions to invest in good action. Good action can only be amplified in community and codified in law in our democracy through the public sectors and process. The empathetic person begins with the their first sense of good. The hard part is negotiating that goodness with integrity through community and politics to the last act of service. Integrity is the lifeline for empathy. The Good Decision is a sequence to this end and not a formula. The process is designed to guide one through the universal layers of required due diligence in a society governed through a democratic process. No, I don’t think we are living in a post activist world, but my caution is every activist movement generates its own activist vocabulary which represents another paper cut in the unity of society. Conflict in these times is inevitable and endemic. Let us enter into our necessary conflicts first without our arsenal of self and cause defining words, but rather with our expanding vocabulary and skills for empathy and sense of good seeking first common ground with the curiosity of a peacemaker.

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