Empathy versus Judgment and How Dolly Parton Could Save America

I write with a heavy heart this week after watching yet another black man get killed by yet another white police officer. I feel devastated for the victims and their families. I have worked for years with victims of crime and racism as a trauma psychologist. I know how damaging it is to live in fear. I also spent years working with first responders, most of whom were good people who are likely as heart broken as the rest of the country right now. I feel awful that they are now lumped in with the bad element in our police communities.

Somehow, this killing of an innocent man, like everything else, has become partisan. Somehow, instead of total unity about a horrendous act, we are divided and living in judgment.

Judgment has become pervasive. We are truly a divided country, and things keep getting worse. Because I am someone who wants to be involved in the solution, not the problem, I recorded a podcast on judgment versus empathy and how Dolly Parton lives in a way that could save this country. I hope you’ll listen in and read this long blog.

Judgment, in my opinion, is lazy. We form a quick opinion of someone. Judgment comes from our old brain trying to keep us safe, but it isn’t needed in modern day life like it was when we lived outdoors, with wild animals and food scarcity. Judgment leads us to stop trying to understand things at a deeper level. We give quick labels that categorize people into someone we accept or someone we reject. And, it is taking our culture down.

Empathy, by contrast, requires effort. It involves listening and understanding, trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It refuses to make hasty assumptions. With empathy, we get to see how complicated people are. We reject the notion of black or white thinking and we embrace the grays. Empathy provides the possibility of learning something about another human being such that, even if we disagree, we don’t engage in contempt and hatred.

The book, A New Earth, by Eckert Tolle, talks about the downside of using labels. Once our brain labels something, like “tree,” we often don’t look closely to observe the shape of the leaves, the colors and how they vary from the other trees. We categorize and our brain gets to rest. But, we miss out on the details and beauty all around us by not looking more closely.

Labeling and judgment of people results in the same thing. You miss the full picture. My own use of harsh judgment recently will give a perfect example of this concept.

I saw a woman in the store last week who was not wearing a mask. Her one-year-old was in a baby carrier in the grocery cart. I quickly labeled her; selfish, more consumed with her right to get others sick than with our rights to be healthy. I was certain of her political group. And, I did this all in a second.

As I walked down the aisle behind her, I saw an older couple with masks on coming our way. What the woman did next, stopped me in my tracks. She pulled out her mask, put it on and attempted social distancing from the older couple. Immediately, her daughter started to cry. Seeing her mom in a mask upset her. She tried repeatedly to pull it off her mom’s face. By this time I was fairly close to the mother and could see her fighting back tears. She needed to be at the store, wanted to wear a mask, but was distressing her daughter who didn’t have any understanding of why her mother was covering her face. My judgment was lazy. My analysis had been way off. I felt sad and filled with empathy for this young mother. I told her it was ok. People would understand.

My judgment had formed a barrier; my empathy forged a connection. That’s what they do all the time. I now had to accept that many people have reasons for not wearing masks, and their reasons might not be the negative things I assumed.

Stereotypes, which are judgments, can be crushed by one real person. I’m lucky that in my therapy practice, I am exposed to wonderful people from multiple religions, ethnic backgrounds and political parties. You simply cannot say anything about a whole group, when you know someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype. Even one person can smash a negative belief about a group and create a new perspective.

A few months ago, I listened to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America and it opened my eyes to what can happen if you spend no time judging others. Dolly Parton never talks poorly of anyone. She stays out of politics and gossip. She never gives away “which camp she is in.” At first I thought it was because she doesn’t want to lose business from half of the country. By the end of the 8 part series, I had come to believe it was much bigger than that.

Dolly Parton genuinely sees the good in people. She listens and smiles and engages from a place of love and understanding. When someone tries to get her to see evil in someone else, she says simple things like “I think we should pray for that person.” Basically, if someone is struggling, we should send good thoughts and love.

Am I saying that this is easy or that we shouldn’t judge evil? No, I don’t think we should ever support evil or stay silent when violence or abuse is occurring. But, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the quick judgments we engage in all the time with people we don’t know. I don’t think what Dolly does is easy. But imagine for a minute, what would happen if you saw others from empathy and didn’t engage in judgment. What might be the benefit? I would argue you would be healthier, wealthier, and happier.

The health ramifications of living in anger are real. When your body is upset and on high alert, your fight or flight nervous system is activated. You have more cortisol and stress hormones that can lead to sleep problems, weight gain and a slew of medical problems. Think of the way your body feels when you are trying to get your cousin, who is in the opposite political camp as you, to understand your point of view. It’s like banging your head against the wall, hoping your headache will go away.

But if you asked your cousin to help you understand, you might hear something that gives you empathy. Having empathy might take away the agitation and let you feel compassion, even if you don’t agree.

Dolly Parton is happy. She radiates energy and giving. She taps into creativity at a level I’ve rarely seen. She has written thousands of songs, been in movies and television shows, and is still writing, performing and creating at 74. She is richer than you can imagine, energized and in high demand. Part of her success might come from her refusal to engage in judgment.

I highly recommend you all listen to the podcast, Dolly Parton’s America. She has become an inspiration for me. It’s not that she stays uninvolved in things she cares about. She knows where her passions lie. She has given free books to children for decades. She supports all kinds of charities. What she doesn’t do is partake in the bashing and judgment that so many of us do, seemingly automatically.

Take minute to imagine if you felt calm, even when you were around someone with different views. What if you chose to connect on issues like music, books, cooking and children. What if you didn’t reject an entire person because you found out one piece of information that you didn’t like. We do it in our families all the time. We all have that crazy uncle or aunt who we adore, even though they don’t believe all the thing we do. If we can have understanding with them, why not try it with others.

Living in empathy, without judgment, might just launch your career, health and creativity to the next level. It might be the path back to a country willing to listen and treat others with respect and dignity. I certainly hope it is one piece of the solution. There are lots of ways to get involved in the solution. Becoming an ally and getting involved is clearly what we all need to do. We can no longer do nothing and avoid being complicit.

You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:

Google Play

Thank you,
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.

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