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  • Reverend James Squire

Empathy And The Importance Of Now

We tend to have a different form of leadership in the West from that in the East. Most leaders who are raised in the American culture think in terms of win or lose. Leaders with an eastern mindset try to move close enough to their opponents so they understand the opposite point of view. It is this difference in mindset that has kept Trump alive and well during these January 6 Commission Hearings where his lack of leadership, lies, and narcissism has been on full display for the American people. Trump is depending on the western mindset to continue his lies and his plan to run again.

One of the things that is essential to do in this day and age is to work hard to discover what Trump and his followers believe but more importantly to discover why they believe it. I have heard the mantra of “how could you continue to vote for this man who tried to overthrow our government?” Our response is usually that his ongoing popularity among Republicans just doesn’t make sense. It baffles us!

Sun Tzu is regarded as one of the greatest strategists in military history. He is the embodiment of the eastern way of achieving empathy. His strategies are often used in non-military venues where we possess one opinion and someone else has a different opinion from ours. His most famous declaration is “to know your enemy, you must become your enemy. This means to think like the enemy. Do it and you have some chance. Forget it and you are doomed.”

Richard Chessick in How Psychotherapy Heals states that there are two things that are necessary for a person to move forward in counseling. One is unconditional positive regard and the other is empathy by the therapist. Empathy is needed for healing. The opposite side of this relationship coin is that empathy is needed to fully understand others who keep us broken with our own anger. Recall that what helps us such as rain can harm us such as in a flood.

I have seen various interviews of focus groups that ask why, in spite of the January 6 damaging report, people will still vote for Trump if he runs again. Empathy in understanding people who don’t respond the way that we expect them to respond requires us to enter their world view. When people are interviewed and indicate that they will vote for Trump in the future, they have a myriad of responses that could help us to understand this position even though it feels irrational to us.

The list of responses includes that these pro Trump people have not watched or been aware of what has occurred during the January 6 Committee deliberations. If they have heard the compelling statements against Trump, they dismiss it as actions of people who are out “to get him.” They also continue to believe the Big Lie because it is embarrassing to admit that they have been deceived. Some will vote for him because of their belief that party comes before national interest. Their daily lives have more immediate concerns than their concerns about the ramifications of him being elected again. People are focused on the economy and high inflation as well as rising housing and rental costs. It is hard to be concerned about political issues if you are worried about the basics in terms of the needs of your family. From a theoretical standpoint, research indicates that money or money insecurity overrides ethical concerns of integrity.

Understanding the above-mentioned issues is important to moving closer to being in the moment with Trump’s followers. Of course, he continues giving his message to anyone who will listen so it is understandable that confirmation bias would be one reason why his followers continue to view his lie.

There is more. It may be the most important issue of all the issues. Keep in mind how often Trump has referred back to the past election with “stop the steal.” Keep in mind as well how he dangles his future political life regarding running again for office in front of his followers. When will he announce his presidential plans for running in 2024?

It is something that is contributing to the unreality of the views of his followers. He keeps them in the past by referencing the Big Lie, and he keeps them in the future by his possible run. This is just as important as any of the named reasons above. There is no “now.” Let’s go back to what I have learned that makes counseling effective beyond unconditional positive regard and empathy. An effective therapist must focus right in the moment when one is helping another. Complete and total focus must be on the person who has come for help.

When I was in training at Duke Medical Center, we were taught this by writing verbatims after an interview with a client. Verbatims are documents where you are required to write down every word spoken by yourself and the person that you are counseling. It required the counselor to hang on every word spoken and gesture made. It would be equivalent to an actor knowing all of his lines and the appropriate demeanor that is necessary. It is a skill that can be taught because it is essential. Why?

I turn to one of my favorite theologians, Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest. He adds an important dimension for knowing the “enemy.” “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs’. They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and now.”

That is the subtle dynamic that has provided so much frustration regarding Trump. Keeping us from living in the now allows him to take advantage of the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’ We can only really address what is happening in this moment. It will be hard. The answer is to remove the ‘oughts’ and ‘ifs’ from our discussions of him and encourage the media to do the same.

Quit giving him a megaphone that places us in the past or in his future as a candidate! The January 6 Commission Hearings work because they focus on what he did in the past as they indicate that he is not fit for office in the future. The advantage of the hearings is that they take the past and the future and place it in the immediacy of the now. That is what holds us captivated to the TV screen!

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