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.
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?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.