In seventh grade I had my very own personal bully.
His name was Bruce. I don’t know how it started, but I do remember waking up every school day in fear. They say not knowing is the worst part, and I don’t disagree, but wondering if I was going to be verbally teased, punched, kicked, spat on, or have my lunch stolen, was just as bad as actually having it happen.
I hated him. For the longest time I lay awake at night either wishing to move away, or thinking up ways to get even. It took me almost the entire semester to finally stand up to him. But that hate had turned to pity. Looking back, through all the hurt and anger and fear, I realized that I actually empathized with him.
I do today.
A mutual friend, at some point during this horrific season of my life told me that he was coming from a broken home where he was left alone much of the time with an absent dad and a workaholic unemotional mother. I lost my dad when I was five and at 12 I was an emotionally awkward, shy, unassuming, fearful kid.
It was fight for flight both of us. He chose fight, I chose flight. A perfect match. He was angry. I was scared.
Cognitive empathy is acquiring knowledge and understanding of another and then feeling to some degree what they are feeling and why they are feeling it. In no way does this excuse the actions of bullying or creating an environment of fear. I still disliked him and I avoided him for the rest of Jr High, even after he had long stopped the bullying. But it did give me a greater understanding of his pain.
When we disagree with someone strongly, or if someone hurts us, or we feel an injustice has been placed upon us, or there is a people group we might not feel comfortable around, it would be wise for all of us to exercise cognitive empathy. We may never agree with them, or invite them over for lemonade, and we should never stay silent on issues of inequality, bulling, or injustice, but we can gain a better understanding, and in doing so, find an approach that seeks connection.
In today’s climate of information being shouted in echo-chambers, we must, as we move forward farther into this century, make a practice of cognitive empathy. Most of us care about our communities, our children, and our loved ones. Most of us want peace and clean air to breath. I certainly have my strongly held beliefs on how the world should look. I am a huge vocal advocate for the environment and for social justice. I get caught in the trap of an us versus them mentality almost daily.
But when I take a breath and realize we are all on this fragile ball floating through space and we have nowhere else to go, I climb out of that echo-chamber and seek to listen and understand. Because when we all do that, we have a better chance of surviving - thriving - in the 21st century.
It’s hard. Holy shit, it’s hard. But I don’t see another way out of this.