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  • Reverend James Squire

The Shadow, Empathy, and the Insurrection



I always began Ethics classes with a variation of John Dewey’s Five Step Decision Making Process. It was founded by John Dewey in 1910. Dewey who was philosopher and pioneer in education. Its beauty is in simplicity and is still used over a hundred years later. The steps are as follows: (1) identify the problem by digging as deeply as you can to the root of it; (2) identify the people who are affected: (3) practice empathy; (4) name the values or systems of ethics that you would apply to the situation, for example, honesty may be highest value, and (5) determine how you would measure the outcome. Dewey would agree with Richard Chessick who wrote How Psychotherapy Heals that empathy may be the most important step among the five.


I have found this to be true in my role as counselor to a good many. But what does this have to do with the Insurrection and the perpetuation of the Big Lie?


During the last presidential campaign, Vicki and I attended a standing room only outside rally where former President Obama was speaking. To add to the moment, when we finally found our seats, they were located next to two of my former African American students, twins. One of them was someone that I mentored and was teaching religion at Lincoln University. It was a love fest. The crowd was enthusiastic. I had a surprising reaction. I was as enthusiastic as the next person to hear his skills of elocution, his passion, and his integrity that oozed from his every word. But I found myself comparing the experience to listening to Trump using sound bites attacking others with great arrogance and little skill with the use of language. That produced sadness.


I am reading a captivating book, The President’s Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. The essence of the book is the close personal relationships among former presidents Truman and Hoover, Kennedy and Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson, Ford and Carter, and Clinton and Obama. I didn’t know the extent that these past presidents sought counsel from one another in this shared experience of the presidency. Two examples should suffice as I compare their experience with that of Trump and the Big Lie. Hoover and Eisenhower told Nixon not to contest the election of Kennedy as there were some voting irregularities. “It wasn’t because they wanted to see Kennedy in the White House. It was to protect the presidency from a crisis of legitimacy.” Bush and Obama had a bruising campaign. Bush told Obama after the 2008 election, “We want you to succeed. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.” Reading this book has left me with the same feeling of “what could have been” that I felt at that rally as we face into the forces of those who are running for office who continue with the Big Lie with Trump leading the way.


What is different today compared to this past president’s club? Why does the lie continue? The two examples above point to the much-needed change in perspective and soul work. Those campaigns of the above were tough ones, some even bitter, but afterwards, they could embrace one another In part because “nothing can prepare you for the challenges of the presidency.”


I believe that the Big Lie continues because Trump and those Republicans running for office have not confronted the “shadow” that can stand as a barricade to empathy. The shadow is a Jungian term for the dark places that are in each of us. Tales such as Beauty and the Beast speaks to this as beauty can embrace the ugliness within us and transform us. That’s what former presidents did that Trump and his allies can’t do. How could you admit to being part in any way to the ugliness of that day? Release of new video paints it worse than we thought it could be. The irony is that the more those images are released, the more aware the supporters are of the criminal intent. They run faster from that beast, their shadow, on a footpath of lies and disillusionment. Think of something that you and I have done that has been horribly wrong. Did we follow that footpath away from the Beast in us with quick steps of rationalization and denial?


I have counseled a good many who came to me with the beast of the unimaginable and horrific. I saw people who others would not. For some, I could only recoil at first at their terrible behavior, their lies, and deceit. I came to realize that I could only get to empathy when I could help them to kiss their beast within, not to cheapen it with hollow words of acceptance and apology, but pure and full embrace of their wrong doing. No cheap grace.


I predict we will see more of the same in the days ahead particularly with the establishment of the new commission to explore the insurrection and increased footage shown of the actual day. Trump and his allies will move more quickly along the footpath of denial. The beast and shadow within will dominate. There is something else that gets in the way of empathy and that is the desire for power and prestige. Instead of seeing Trump and others as “deplorables”, we need to see them as people on the run with the unimaginable and slow them down with the horror of what they did by acknowledging that all of us have a shadow and have been in a hard, bitter fight with others. We can look to the Presidents Club and those two examples that were mentioned to see first-hand how other leaders did this. Show modeling.


Biden used the image of fighting for the soul of the nation. That phrase needs to turn from slogan to action. I have been in some difficult struggles with kids in trouble. When parents ask me what I am doing, I will sometimes say that I am in a war to get them to a better place. That begins with their truly embracing the shadow or beast within so that empathy can begin. It feels like fighting for their soul. That’s what we need to do as a nation! Embracing the ugly and providing empathy, like our presidents in the past, is the only way forward.


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