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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

What the World Needs Now

Understanding our own motivations helps us to also understand that others also have motivations. That is what empathy is. Understanding ourselves at a level which enables us to understand others.

Yesterday, this question popped up on my Facebook Memories: “How do these people sleep at night?” It was a valid question. Over the span of my life, I have had more people abuse, hurt, and “turn my world upside down” than I even care to think about. I don’t know how anyone could define “fair share” but I probably met the quota long ago. And while I am sure I have been unkind at times in my life, it was not a life pattern and I always felt bad about it afterwards.

As I ended that paragraph, I wondered, “Were there times I hurt others and simply didn’t know?” Very possible. I guess that is the point though. If someone goes around hurting others on a regular basis but isn’t even aware of the pain they are causing, then absolutely, they can sleep well at night. Why wouldn’t they?

In a recent article about men who rape (let’s just go to the worst-case scenario), the last sentence stated, “. . . experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.” They don’t deny that there was no consent, but don’t believe it was rape or their fault.[1]

If it is possible to rape and not feel responsible, how much more is it possible to do other hurtful actions and not feel responsible? How does that happen? We feel and see evidence of it occurring every single day. It is probably the underlying reason there are so many memes about loving “the other.”

In 1965 (I would have been twelve), Dionne Warwick sang the following lyrics:

What the world needs now is love sweet love, It’s the only thing that there's just too little of, What the world needs now is love sweet love, No, not just for some but for everyone.

Over fifty years later, we can still sing the same song. But, I wonder, is the vague concept of love keeping us from seeing what is truly needed? We love people, we love pizza, and I personally love the water. We say the word in every context and “heart” it on posts. The question is, “Does love help us understand when our actions are hurting other people?” Well, it should, right? Especially for people of faith. But I have been hurt by some very “faithful” people and they consistently believed I was the problem.

Let’s go to another level of blaming the other. Scott and I have been released, fired, downsized, replaced, and “whatever” a total of ten times in our 40 years of marriage. In every situation, we were recognized as hard-working employees—even by those who asked us to leave. We also consistently rose to the top in evaluations and promotions. We never stole or were unethical. Those who worked under us generally liked us. We weren’t perfect and made some mistakes—which in hindsight were being too honest and forthright. But there was something about us that made superiors “feel uncomfortable” (by their own admission). In every case, those who fired us and turned our world upside-down felt justified in their actions—and believed the problem was us. I doubt they lost sleep.

I think feeling justified should be a red flag for all of us. If you believe that you are justified in causing another pain, then you probably are not self-reflecting on the situation very deeply. Yes, there are times when choices must be made for very good reasons and the other person experiences pain, but when we feel justified to the point we sleep well, it might be wise to reflect a bit more. (It is also possible to feel badly, but it only be about our own discomfort and not what the other person is experiencing—another red flag.)

Self-reflection is a lost art. Consider this: How can someone make you feel uncomfortable? “Feeling uncomfortable” is not actually a feeling. It is the sense that whatever is occurring is stirring some feeling inside of you. In the case of our many firings, I wonder if our competence made those who had felt “less than” since childhood uncomfortable (and depended on their title and power to overcome it). If so, then our dismissals could easily have been perceived as our fault. All of us know highly competent people who have been fired. It makes no sense. Bosses shoot themselves in the foot by firing good employees all the time.

Our culture’s avoidance of feelings and emotions has resulted in an inability to understand ourselves and why we do the things we do. Both sermons and memes tell us feelings lie to us. Never. That is like saying a potato that calls itself a potato is a liar. A feeling is a feeling. It is as true as the ground you are standing on. It is a body sensation. It is how our body informs us. But feelings do get hijacked by our perceptions of experiences—especially as children. The feeling is not a lie, but the message attached to it may be. In our effort to ignore our feelings, we don’t even know we are living out the messages.

What does, “That person makes me feel uncomfortable” actually mean? The answer is one only you can determine. A personal example: I had one employer who really was a jerk, but my feelings while in the same room with him were way beyond him being a jerk. I could have overlooked his need to always be right, but he made me feel so uncomfortable! The truth is awkward. His ears looked like the ears of one of my perpetrators. A memory I had repressed.

Not everyone has abuse in his or her background, but all have had experiences which created uncomfortable feelings. We don’t just “feel uncomfortable” or not like someone or something without reason. And when we are unable to see things from any other perspective but our own unresolved feelings, we will always believe we are justified in our actions—even when we hurt other people. It is how we protect ourselves.

Understanding our own motivations helps us to also understand that others have motivations. That is what empathy is. Understanding ourselves at a level which enables us to understand others. We cannot understand all emotional content carried by others, but we can listen without being triggered by our own feelings. That is what uncomfortable means: “You are causing the emotions and feelings I am avoiding to surface.” It then is “the other’s” fault and not ours.

Will there ever be a point where our emotions are so completely resolved that no one ever makes us feel uncomfortable? I used to think that was my goal and then I realized I was just looking for a new, more improved emotional bypass. We need to feel, even if it is uncomfortable. But we also need to understand why we feel uncomfortable so we can make appropriate choices that do not hurt others. And to do that, we need to realize that our uncomfortableness is not their fault. If we don’t, we will act in defensive or avoidant ways that hurt others—and feel justified in doing so.

Being empathetic requires discomfort. If loving another person doesn’t at some point make you feel uncomfortable, then you are only loving inside your comfort zone. It is like loving pizza. It doesn’t involve empathy. And what the world needs now is not just love. It is the kind of love that enables us to sit beside another in their pain and not have our own unresolved and possibly unrecognized emotional baggage trigger us into inappropriate uncomfortable responses. When we understand and accept our own feelings, it is possible to not judge, try to fix, spiritualize the pain, or react in hurtful ways which make us feel better (safer).

[1] Murphy, Heather (Oct. 30, 2017) What Experts Know about Men Who Rape. The New York Times.

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