What’s Needed in these Uncertain Times? Maybe More Empathy…

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In the fourth week of the Trump Administration, with the news changing so quickly every day, we are once again reminded that we need to stay grounded. I have been staying active in my community and riding most of the tumultuous waves by practicing the mindset of Maybe. But the deportation of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who came to this country when she was a teenager and was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration officials during a routine check-in, shook me deeply. In addition to Maybe, I found myself needing another way to cope. I watched the live news coverage of Ms. Rayos sitting in a van with immigration officials waiting to be deported. Her two kids, husband, friends and immigrant-rights advocates tried to block the van from moving. As I sat on the couch with my two children by my side, watching the news, I could not stop crying. Immigrant-rights advocates have portrayed Ms. Rayos as a victim of President Trump’s sweeping new deportation orders. At the same time, her deportation has been viewed differently by others who have praised Trump’s immigration orders because Ms. Rayos had a felony conviction. That conviction stemmed from a 2008 work-site raid on employees at amusement parks, Ms. Rayos among them, who were working using false social security numbers.

The deportation of undocumented immigrants was not a policy originally created by the Trump administration. The Obama administration deported millions of undocumented immigrants over the last eight years. Donald Trump and his administration might be casting a wider net, deporting immigrants with no criminal records, but both administrations have supported the removal of people present in the United States illegally. In an effort to understand and process what’s been happening, I called a few friends who voted for Hilary Clinton and some who voted for Donald Trump about these immigration issues. The results have been interesting.

My friends who voted for Hilary Clinton were not totally aware that millions of people were deported during the Obama administration and all felt that Ms. Rayos should be allowed to stay in the country. My friends who voted for President Trump were under the impression that Obama did nothing to deport undocumented immigrants. Unanimously, my pro-Trump friends felt it was the right decision to deport Ms. Rayos. They believed she had committed a crime by working while using false documents and needed to leave the country. At the end of my day of conversations with both sides, I called one of my Trump-supporting friends back and asked her to watch the footage of Ms. Rayos in the van. I asked my friend to imagine she was Ms. Rayos and was about to be separated from her children and husband. I asked her how she would feel if she never got to return home again. “If you needed to make money to feed your family, would you have used fake identification to work? I asked her. My friend called me back the next day and said the footage made her cry. She could not imagine being separated from her children and losing her home. She acknowledged that she probably would have used fake work papers if she’d been in that situation. I asked her again if Ms. Rayos should be deported, she said she felt terrible for Ms. Rayos and told me it was more difficult to answer that question now than it had been before she put herself in Ms. Rayos’s place.

For those of you who are not familiar with what my friend experienced, it is called empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. Empathy can be the gateway to a more humane and peaceful society, but for empathy to be effective in a society, we can’t just use it for the person we already sympathize with or someone whom we believe is a victim. We also must access empathy for the people we perceive to be our enemies and for those who are standing against us. Without it working both ways, empathy cannot lead us to a place of greater understanding towards all.

Does this mean you need to have as much empathy for people who support the deportation of all undocumented immigrants as you would for Ms. Rayos herself? Well, empathy is not sympathy. Understanding another’s point of view does not mean taking that person’s side. Sometimes, empathy does lead you to a softer place, an agreement or a change of mind. Other times, empathy can be quite strategic because you can understand your opposition’s mindset better. It can give you insight for better decisions and help you effectuate change with better tactics.

Empathy can be hard when we have to listen to what we don’t like, acknowledge another point of view, and try to understand a different perspective. But empathy is worth the effort. It makes us all wiser and more strategic and sometimes it even changes how we see something. For my friend who likes Trump’s immigration policies, being able to relate to Ms. Rayos as a mother, a wife, and a person who has lived in the U.S. for most of her life enabled her to view Ms. Rayos from a more humane, honest and less fear-driven place. Now I suppose it’s my turn to attempt empathy for those who would oppose a person like Ms. Rayos being in the U.S. It’s not that I have to agree with them, but as I seek to support immigrant rights, I may be more effective in my arguments if I can empathize with the other side.

Exercise for this week

In the morning when you wake up, commit to practicing empathy. At least three times during the day, place yourself in someone else’s shoes and see how it feels. Try to understand where that person is coming from. Did imagining yourself in their shoes change how you feel about them or the situation? Did it make you softer towards them? Did it make you less angry? Did it help you forgive them or better understand how to deal with them? Did it help you win an argument or be more strategic? Did it make you feel more peaceful?

After practicing this exercise for a week, I did not change my political stance toward immigration on the part of people seeking better lives. Far from it. While I did soften my judgment of voters who might feel threatened by the presence of people in this country whom they perceive as taking jobs from them, doing this exercise also propelled me to put my law degree to work. I am getting trained next week by a Catholic charity to provide pro bono legal services so I can assist immigrants at asylum workshops and an immigration court helpdesk. With empathy, I realized how scared I would feel if I was a law-abiding undocumented immigrant in New York City and I felt compelled to try and help. It is a small act but my heart is open and I am hopeful that Maybe I can help someone like Ms. Rayos in the future.

It seems like there are more rocky times ahead. As we view immigration policies and other issues facing our country, empathy will continue to be a key component to creating policies for a more humane society and at the same time keeping the United States safe for all. Empathy is not just needed from Donald Trump and his supporters, but also from everyone of every political stripe if we are to improve our society.

Continue to stay involved with issues that are important to you. Your Maybe mindset, along with some empathy, are good tools to help you forge a better relationship with uncertainty. And stay tuned–I will be back next week with more tips in a new Survival Guide for Uncertain Times.

Originally posted in Psychology Today.