Maintaining Empathy in the Age of Trump

How to counteract the daily doses of anger, anxiety, and stress by stimulating positive human connections.

By Ellen Freed


Responding to American politics on a day-to-day basis is exhausting for those of us who find the corruption and chaos of the Trump administration disturbing. We struggle to handle the abusive language of the President, the misuse of executive power, the daily lies, the challenge of discriminating between “fake news” and truth, the thread of cruelty that runs through policies, the appointments of unqualified senior advisors, the revolving door of top officials, and The Mueller Report. Reacting to the upsetting news that comes across the airways with regular certainty takes away from the daily dose of energy needed to function. We feel anger, fear, shock, and sadness as the greatest country ever created becomes more and more unrecognizable.

What has happened to the empathy and social cooperation which distinguish humans from every other species on the planet and are deeply embedded in our DNA? In autocratic countries, these qualities are successfully repressed through political leadership which uses force and fear to keep them controlled. However, they are there, nevertheless, always waiting to be reactivated. And they are essential in a democratic society; for without them, civility is threatened. Today, in the age of Trump, daily doses of anger, anxiety, and stress become the enemies of empathy.

Finding ways to reduce stress and maintain and increase empathy will neutralize the effect of being exposed to continual bullying, corruption, and chaos. So, here are some practical suggestions for counteracting the negative news of the day and reactivating compassion.

For those of us who wake up with “Morning Joe” and somehow sleep after “Lawrence O’Donnell,” MSNBC has become a 21st century group therapy arena. It is comforting to hear intelligent, well-informed hosts and guests tell the truth and directly say what we are thinking. A fellow addict friend and I recently confessed that we are sometimes lost on weekends. There are times when one must take a break from MSNBC to view lighter content; and to my surprise, a highly sophisticated colleague recommended the Hallmark Movie Channel for inspiration about human relationships. Another suggestion is HGTV which several friends watch claiming home improvement ideas provide instant relief and distraction from politics.

Rohima Khatun fled violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
Photo by Robin Hammond  / Panos Pictures.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

By chance, I discovered a way to activate empathy. When flipping through a Doctors Without Borders quarterly, I came across an exceptional photograph of a young woman who had fled violence in Myanmar after witnessing the brutal killing of her husband, child, relatives and neighbors. Her face was mesmerizing, and her eyes transmitted poignancy at the deepest level. I could not take my eyes off hers as I absorbed the energy emanating from an inanimate object. And the result was an unexpected wave of empathy for a total stranger I would never meet. So, turn on your picture files and look carefully at powerful photographs of family and friends. Feel the emotional energy they transmit.

Another recent experience confirmed the importance of keeping your eyes focused on people as you move from place to place in our great city. While waiting on the F train Manhattan-bound platform in Forest Hills after a game of tennis, I spotted a tall, attractive Japanese man holding the hand of his adorable four-year-old son. The boy was exuding joy at being there by using his other hand to point at various objects and talking excitedly in Japanese. The scene filled me with delight, and when the train came, I purposely entered the same car and sat next to them.

Throughout the entire 25-minute trip, the boy continued pointing and expressing happiness in his native language. Soon a few other people noticed and started smiling along with me. At one point, I made eye contact with the father who acknowledged my appreciation of his son by a subtle nod of the head. As the train approached my stop at 63rd and Lexington, I was determined to say goodbye to this captivating child who had unknowingly given me a great gift. As I got up to leave before opening my mouth, he turned toward me, and with the broadest, most delicious smile said, “Bye, Bye.”

Walking home, I couldn’t get the image of that face out of my mind. It lingered a little longer, affording me an hour of freedom from the news and a welcomed feeling of enjoyment. This example spotlights the benefit of making eye contact with and smiling at strangers as you travel around the city. You never know what joy that action can precipitate!

These experiences got me thinking about other ways to counteract the effects of Trumpism by stimulating positive human connections. Here are a few other suggestions that emerged from interviews with fellow concerned citizens:

Greet family members and friends with a hug first; and feel the energy that comes from welcoming loved ones with touch. Then say “Hello.”

Handle anger directed at you with greater understanding and resist the temptation to return it in kind. This includes dealing with family and friends who support Trump.

See films like The Green Book and open yourself up to the inspiring messages they contain.

Gaze at one person on the bus or subway. As you look, first feel your own “me,” and then experience the “me” in her or him. Repeat this process as you observe the next traveler.

Compassion confirms our humanity and offers hope for the future. Increasing empathy, one person at a time, can cascade into a campaign for preserving human behavior at its highest level. And, perhaps, as time goes by, the dark shadow of Trumpism will lighten and fade away.

Ellen Freed is a writer, editor, and instructional designer. With Thomas Vietorisz, M.D., she co-authored Recovering Humanity: A Blueprint for Survival.

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