Have you ever noticed how easy it is to break into a rant?
Come to think of it, that could be an opening line from an Andy Rooney parody. I’ve been thinking of that cranky curmudgeon from CBS’s 60 Minutes recently as I’ve listened to some of our political discussions. Rooney would fit right in as a television pundit in our age of grievance.
I am afraid I understand the allure of grievances all too well. The temptation to rant is very enticing at times, and on very serious subjects, no less. For example…
- In recent weeks I’ve had the thought that what the world needs to hear is my take on the grating personality of Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney. Most recently he claimed his team was “favored by God” after they beat Ohio State in the college football semifinal. I usually quote the late Lewis Grizzard on God and sports: “As best as I can tell, God was undefeated in all sports last year. Anybody who won thanked Him, and I never heard a single loser blame Him.” Thankfully, LSU stomped on Swinney’s God-favored football team in the national championship game and saved me the trouble of writing.
- And I know that everyone wants to know what I think about the consensus that Derek Jeter should have been the second unanimous choice to enter Baseball’s Hall of Fame, after Mariano Rivera made it last year on 100% of the ballots. Seriously? Jeter had a better-than-good but not exceptional career; is handsome (I’ll grant him that); was lucky to be where he was at times (ahem, I’m looking at you, Jeffrey Maier, before the advent of instant replay would have called Jeter’s “home run” an out); and played for the most PR-conscious team in all of sports. But a unanimous choice? No way. If Willie Mays was only selected on 95% of the ballots in his first year, no one deserves to be elected with 100% support. (By the way, after Mays was not placed on every ballot, sportswriter Dick Young had this classic comment: “If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn’t vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn’t he?”) In any event, some anonymous sportswriter didn’t include Jeter on his ballot, and so I didn’t have to rant about this. I know you’re glad to hear that.
See, I told you it was easy to go down the ranting rabbit hole. And sports is clearly one area where outrage has overtaken sportsmanship and just plain old common sense.
Thankfully, many times when I rise up to rant about some trouble, slight, or loss of privilege, I remember that much of our outrage is wrapped up in perceived grievances. It is so easy to get worked up. And so we do. Sometimes we get worked up to get out of facing hard realities. Some 50 years ago, historian Richard Hofstadter discussed how these grievances infiltrate our civic life in The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
As noted by Steve Almond in Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, we take our grievances oh so seriously; yet, we dismiss the vulnerabilities that should give us pause in seeking to right all the wrongs that we believe have been perpetrated against us. We get worked up and cast protest votes, or choose not to vote at all, without realizing that we are helping the very politicians and their corporate and media enablers who have promised to upend much that we hold dear or things on which our lives or livelihood depends. Or perhaps we realize it, but don’t quite believe it will happen to us. In any event, there are vulnerabilities all around us that we would do well to take as seriously as our grievances.
Instead of grievances, how would our lives differ if we focused on empathy?
Our grievances can come from the fact that we don’t know, and don’t connect, with the people who we assault through our online rants. I’ll be honest, I have never met Dabo Swinney or Derek Jeter. So it is easy for me, even in jest, to—in the words of Dr. Helen Riess in her TEDx talk on empathy—”inflict harm on people you never see.”
Just as we learn how to perceive grievances, Dr. Riess—of the Harvard Medical School and founder of Empathetics, an empathy and interpersonal skills training company for medical professionals—suggests that our capacity for empathy is not just an innate trait. It is also a skill that we can learn and expand.
Vivien Fellegi, writing in the magazine Broadview, notes,
“The impulse to help others isn’t simply the result of a good upbringing, a strong moral compass or adherence to a faith-based code of conduct. The drive to assist is born in empathy—that ability to feel and understand what others are feeling—and according to recent neuroscience, empathy is hardwired into all mammals. ‘At a fundamental level, the default is to help—in order not to help you have to actively suppress that urge,’ says Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Chicago.” (emphasis added)
We’re hardwired to care, but we have to nurture it. To not help others, we have to suppress that urge, which is exactly what we’re doing when we focus on grievances.
Unfortunately, we can’t nurture empathy if we are buried in our electronic devises reading tweets and posts designed to build up our grievances and turn us into tribes. As Dr. Riess notes, we “probably have more significant contact with our smartphones than with our significant others.” With that in mind, she goes on to quote American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer who said, “When we accept diminished substitutes, we become diminished substitutes.”
We have to connect with and care for people who don’t look like us if we want to get at the heart of empathy. And it is a better way forward for us, and for others we meet, than indulging the short-term high of a rant.
Have a good week.
More to come…