How to Choose Your Friends in the Aftermath of the Election

The Presidential election has tested friendships and relationships of all kinds. In the wake of such a divisive contest, there may be only one truly healing way to choose your people…

empathy

Photo Credit: Bigstock (dogachov)

The day after the election, I had a scheduled phone call with a long-distance friend of mine. We live in very different parts of the country, have some overlap in our spiritual beliefs and even more overlap in our commitment to fatherhood and vocation, but my guess was that he voted for the other candidate. When he picked up, instead of saying hello, I asked him who he voted for.

I’m not very good at small talk.

Indeed, he had voted differently than me. We talked for thirty minutes about the election, our reasons for voting the way we did, and then we hung up the phone. After hanging up, I made a decision about the friendship: I decided he was one of my people. Because ideology and politics is not the most important criteria for choosing a friend.

Empathy is.

In preschool, friendships are based upon proximity—a friend is someone who lives in your neighborhood or naps on the cot next to you or goes to your church. A friend is someone you spend time with.

In grade school, a friend is someone who likes to play the same games as you, someone you can count on to stick by you on the playground, to be loyal to you and your goals and interests. Some of us get stuck here—our friendships continue to revolve around activities only.

In adolescence and early adulthood, a friend is someone you can open up to, someone you can tell your secrets to, someone who listens to you and who you listen to in return. Here, friendship is an exchange. During this stage of friendship, sharing a worldview is very important—it is safer to be vulnerable with someone who is a natural mirror for who we are.

Most of us get stuck here.

Republicans are friends with Republicans, and Democrats are friends with Democrats. Christians are friends with Christians, and atheists are friends with atheists. Harry Potter fans are friends with Harry Potter fans and Harry Potter haters are, well, inexplicable. (Yes, in some ways, I’m still stuck in this stage of friendship.)

However, after the election, I realized how much I value another stage of friendship. It’s a stage of friendship based upon mutual empathy. What do I mean by empathy? Am I talking about the warm and fuzzies? Am I talking about the kind of thing that only happens in therapy offices and women’s book clubs? No, I’m not.

Empathy is hard and messy, gritty and gutsy.

Empathy is being brave for the sake of belonging.

Empathy is the willingness to wear someone else’s shoes. It’s not just understanding what another person feels; it’s actually feeling it. This is courageous, because to feel someone else’s pain and fear and frustration, you first have to be able to feel your own. Empathy is hearing someone else’s story, finding a reference point for that in your own story, and then making the emotional landscape you see there the common ground upon which you both can stand.

Empathy is putting connection before correction.

In the conversation with my phone friend—and in my conversations with other friends following the election—I realized I don’t care so much how someone voted. I care if they are interested in understanding my feelings about the election, and I care if they are interested in helping me to understand how they feel. In other words, regardless of how they voted, if they aren’t interested in—or capable of—an exchange of empathy, I may have to go elsewhere for the kind of friendship and connection I’m seeking.

Choosing who we will invest our time, energy, and vulnerability into is a big decision. Finding good friends and cultivating graceful friendships, this is some of the most important and complicated work of life. But there might just be one question that can simplify it a little for all of us:

How do you vote: for empathy or against it?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kevin

    That was a good read Kelly. Thank you for sharing it. I will share it as well, and see if it prompts any others in thought or deed.
    One word: Depth. My take away is that a meaningful friendship has depth. Depth can only come with legitimate connection. A friendship with a deep connection has the strength to survive disagreement, and they are mutually beneficial in a most wonderful way: They help us be better people, and we help the others be better people as well. Sadly, there are many who, for whatever reason, won’t go deep. I know many, and have been that person myself. So worth it, diving deep.
    Thanks again for sharing. Again, this one isn’t about the election either.

    • Depth is a great word for it, Kevin. Any depth will eventually reveal differences. Can those differences be meet with empathy and understanding, or only criticism and distance? Dive deep, buddy.

      • Shayne Wheeler

        Exactly the reason my sister and I fell apart. No empathy. No understanding. Way too much criticism. I finally decided she isn’t “my people”. I hope one day she is again, but until then, I’m surrounding myself with my people.

  • rev_dave

    Thank you. I have a few friends with whom I do not share political views, but who also decided with me that we weren’t going to let go of our friendship over something as petty as politics. I thought it was because we realized we had no influence there and so it was more a case of liking or not liking what we watch happen. But I find your explanation closer to the ‘root cause’ of how and why we made those decisions. I like it.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Right on, Kelly. While your impetus here is this politically divisive moment, your perspective is spot on for something that is not unique to this time and place: it’s just salient for lots of people all at once. It can be disappointing or sad to see that what looked like friendships were arrested in some early stage of developing or lacked mutuality entirely. It’s not an indictment, though. It’s simply what is. And it can be a good thing to loosen our grip on what isn’t elevating or empathetic to make room in our lives and hearts for those relationships whose depths can really nourish us.
    Thank you for putting my thoughts in order, Kelly.

    • Shel, thanks for capturing the spirit of my post. Not an indictment of people or relationships, simply an acknowledgement of reality which let’s us get on with building a better reality and better belonging.

  • Judith Lawrance

    I very much appreciate this! If only more of us would try to empathize with one another not just about politics, but also about so many issues in this life!

  • callmecrazy66

    This was not and is not a normal republican vs democrat issue. This is an issue about basic human rights. While I am sure it would feel better to do so, I don’t feel that distancing yourself from the reality of the choices made serves humanity. Where do you draw the line? Some things are simply not acceptable. I will end with a quote by Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    • You’re not kidding. We live in bizarre times. However, I’m not sure empathy and moral discernment/social activism are mutually exclusive. Sure, apathy can be disguised as empathy. At the same time, blind rage can be disguised as moral discernment/activism. It seems like love is the art of holding both in balance.

      • callmecrazy66

        So true. I hope I find it soon.

  • Doug Scott

    Agreed! Relationships w the kind of depth and empathy you wrote about are special…and, frankly, hard to come by. I would even suggest that relationships w people with whom you don’t see 100% eye-to-eye, as long as there’s grace and empathy…have the potential of having a special kind of depth…adding texture and meaning in a way that other relationships can’t. Those perspective-broadening relationships are a gift. Thanks for the gift Dr. Kelly! – D.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Doug. Those are the kinds of relationships that challenge us and transform us. Unfortunately, sometimes our hurt, anger, and defensiveness make it difficult to risk that kind of empathy and connection. Thanks for being a guy who takes risks!

  • Grace

    Our three adult children, along with the sweetheart of one of them, voted four different ways. Our daughter-in-law couldn’t vote because she’s not an American citizen, nor could my mother. The day after the election, they went back to school and work and continued to respect and love each other well, accepting the outcome. A close friend of mine from high school called me that same day. We rarely speak on the phone, but when we do, there is much joy and laughter. In her sorrow that morning, she asked if I’d be willing to write in a political forum blog setting because I was the only person she knew who’d voted the way I did. There’s the rub. I am the only person she knows who doesn’t think the same way she does politically. Perhaps this is more common than I’ve realized. Our family life is diverse, in color, background and age (children range from 25 to 8, from the color of cotton candy to dark chocolate). Our friends are of different religions, ages and countries. We are different and this we celebrate. I know many who voted differently from me. The source of my life is Jesus, the goal of my life is to love people well with his love. Politics and everything else is a low second (except coffee, actually that’s a high second :). In this big beautiful world, the “us” decisions we make, challenges we sort, and new paths we forge must be built on love. Perhaps now, the discussion between friends, and people who aren’t yet our friends, must begin not with the question of for whom did you vote, but rather with, in whom does your hope lie? In hopelessness, compassion begins with trust, and trust begins with respect. This is a time of opportunity in America to embrace our differences and seek to know those with whom we’ve never shared our lives. At the core we are all designed in God’s image. Respect begins with this in mind. 🙂
    Thank you Kelly. This is a place where being ‘the beloved’ begins each of your thoughts through which we can speak in mutual respect. So well done!

    • This is beautiful, Grace. Have I told you before that you should try your hand at writing? If not, consider yourself told. The imagery of the diverse life you describe sounds sort of heavenly. Pun intended. 🙂

      • Grace

        Thank you Kelly, your words speak life to me! This family, like every family, is God’s work of art, given for us to treasure. I’m so thankful to be the mom. 🙂
        I’ve been working on my fiction, The Color of God, for almost five years. It is a story about grace. My writing moments are few, but my goal is to finish in this, my 50th year. I hope it will be worth reading. 🙂

        • It’ll be worth reading to me; good for you, Grace!

        • Shayne Wheeler

          When I grow up I want to be Grace. (You had me at coffee.)

          • Grace

            Oh my, what a lovely thing to say! Thank you Shayne :), and cheers with our coffee mugs filled to the brim!

  • Helene McGuinn Susanin

    It’s nice that you can empathize with your friend and that he can empathize with you. People see things differently, of course. And we owe it to one another to be respectful and polite. That being said, we are called to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. So long as we continually strive to respond to that call, we cannot be faulted for choosing friends based on the important fact that we empathize with them. However, if empathy diminishes our ability to respond to that call, we must recognize that, and turn away from it. Feeling good is not the same as doing good.

  • Joyce Slaughter

    Can we put this on a billboard and scroll it across the country? As always, great work Doc <3