Post-Election Empathy

Gentle Reader – it may be me, my own flawed character or even lack of “pedigree”, but I’ve thought for years that way too much attention is given the brainiacs on the East Coast. Here is a beautiful and haunting piece by our own Gary Fincke, the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

Would that we paid attention to more like him.


Nov 12, 2016

Gary Fincke

For the last two days, I’ve tried to put the best face on the election results. There’s no point in ranting. There’s little to be gained by accusing others of being racist or misogynist or just plain stupid for voting for Trump even though, despite the claim that working-class America elected him, I know that in the working-class neighborhood in which I grew up, Trump would have been dismissed as a “pig” or worse.

But I listened to Trump give his speech saying “Let’s all unite now” and felt the now year-old disgust roiling up from the gut. The man who capitalized on deepening and amplifying the already present divisions in this country suddenly needs, now that he’s elected, the “other half” to buddy up.

That’s not going to happen. All those citizens Trump disparaged as the means to power aren’t going to kiss and make up. They might not rant and threaten violence like many of Trump’s supporters promised to do if he lost, but they’ll simmer and sulk and continue, president or not, to loathe him.

These past few days I spoke one-on-one with more than half the students who are enrolled in my workshop classes. They wanted to share responses. Some were angry. Some felt betrayed. A few were near hysteria. All of them were puzzled and stunned.

One of the dangers of attending a rural university is that the world students spend most of their time in isn’t “real.” If they’re not careful, they might settle into the comfort of believing that most people are rational and thoughtful and empathetic toward those who are unlike them in some racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual, or religious way.

This week every one of those students realized that beyond their campus that sort of empathy is often not present and, quite frequently, simply completely absent.

It’s not reassuring to know that Trump isn’t likely to be an effective president and even less likely to improve as a human being. His chronic lying and preening and vindictiveness aren’t going to vanish. After all, he’s been elected by selling half the country’s voters a truck-load of promises impossible to keep. A year from now, maybe sooner, that will be apparent to many of those who voted for him when their lives and jobs (or lack of them) remain the same.

Even more likely, many of them will find their lives worse. For many, the much-maligned Obamacare will transform into no insurance whatsoever. Consumer protection will be reduced; climate control will be minimized; sensible gun control will become fantasy; freedom of the press will be threatened. The list of promises Trump “can fulfill” is a long one.

For example, this morning, as I began to write this, I read that one of Trump’s first appointees is Myron Ebell. Who is he? A leading climate change denier. What is the position to which he’s been appointed by Trump? Head of the Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

The appointment speaks for itself. Just as the rest of the world, at last, makes some effort to curb climate change, Trump will work to hasten the global disasters triggered by what Trump describes as “a conspiracy to help China.”

So what to do?

This morning, in the university’s fitness room, I said “Hello” and smiled at the young woman wearing a hijab to the gym. I’d seen her a dozen times before and, as is often my nature, I wasn’t proactive in greeting her.

Now it felt like a good thing to do. A necessary thing.

A few hours later, in my office, I spent an extended amount of time with one of my students who bears the burden of a chronic disability. I told her stories about my own anxiety attacks, and though none of them are even half as frequent or severe as hers, she calmed down. It felt like a good thing to do. A necessary thing.

Shortly thereafter, the young Jewish woman who needed to show someone photos of newly painted swastikas. A few minutes later, the African-American young woman whose father had driven her hundreds of miles to vote. We talked and listened to each other.

And I understood that Trump has done something positive to me. Whatever my previous level of empathy for “others” had been, it is now significantly raised. My small acts of kindness weren’t performances. They occurred spontaneously and did as much for me as they might have done for those students.

And now I expect to listen just as intently to my granddaughters, 10 and 13, who attend widely diverse public schools in Los Angeles and were surprised and saddened by the election results. In fact, I look forward to it.

About AJ Layon

AJ Layon was, for 28 years, at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in the Division of Critical Care Medicine, in Gainesville, FL. For the approximately 10 years until September 2011, he was Professor and Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF; In September of 2011 he became System Director and Co-Chairman of Critical Care Medicine in PA; this ended in 2017. He served as a Physician in the Surgical Group with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) through 2018 and is presently an intensivist in Florida, struggling through the SARS-CoV-2 crisis. While his interests are primarily related to health care, health care reform, and ethical issues, as a citizen of our United States and our world, he will occasionally opine on issues of our "time and destiny". Follow on Twitter @ajlayon
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