"If you’ve ever had a moment of road rage, or acted impulsively to fend off a pickpocket or bully, you know the feeling," says author Lauren Groff: " You feel as though you could breathe fire." But what if we all learned how to take the temperature down? Groff shares her humble opinion on how to act with imagination in this age of political and cultural division.
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Few days go by anymore without a highly publicized Twitter fight between politicians, media figures, or celebrities, or some sort of confrontation that spills into the public conversation, prompting more of us to wonder if it's possible to take the temperature down?
Well, tonight, author Lauren Groff shares her humble opinion on how to act with imagination in this age of division.
Not long ago, I was out in the prairie where I jog every day when a man rode up on a bicycle and started critiquing my running form. I had not solicited his advice. I don't enjoy mansplaining even when I haven't already run five miles. I asked him to go away repeatedly, but when he persisted, I gave him a verbal hiding that I'm sure he has yet to recover from.
Something in me at that moment just snapped — I felt two feet taller and as vast as the prairie itself. If you've ever had a moment of road rage, or acted impulsively to fend off a pickpocket or bully, you know the feeling.
The constraints of selfhood fall away and you feel as though you could breathe fire.
The truth is, all humans have the capacity to snap. Neurologists tell us that deep in the brain, beneath the center of consciousness in the cerebral cortex, there's a cluster of neurons that causes sudden aggression in lab animals when stimulated with an electrode. It's a healthy automatic function for self-preservation, the cause of the fight in fight or flight.
But just because it's natural to snap in moments of tension doesn't mean that we have to do so when we're not being physically threatened. Our age is an extraordinarily polarized one. It can seem as though we are all yelling all the time.
When we enter into rage, we enter a space that turns people into others who do not deserve the same respect or courtesy that we expect extended to us. In rage, we can refer to human beings as animals, a way to psychically distance us from them enough to deny them basic human rights.
After I raged at the man on the bike that morning, I ran home feeling nauseated. He was elderly and seemed a little lonely. By the time I came in the door, I had imagined an entire life for the man, down to the kinds of mugs he drank his coffee out of and the cat he owned.
I wished I could reverse time to react differently; instead of yelling, explaining calmly why what he was doing was unwelcome. Empathy is an act of radical imagination. Through empathy, we can understand the full scope of the humanity of those whose actions or ideas offend us.
We acquire empathy through imagining ourselves into the lives of strangers, through narrative, the books and films and television shows that don't reinforce our knowledge of the world, but rather challenge what we already know.
Empathy is a muscle that is stronger than our neurological reflexes. If we exercise it every single day, it will be so strong that it can override reflexive anger. In this world, kindness must prevail. So, let's give our empathy rigorous daily workouts — time spent imagining the lives and hearts of others until we have become better than our basest impulses.
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