What a Grumpy Old Farmer Taught Me About Empathy

kane-reinholdtsen-145944

“Hurt people hurt people.” – Lizzie Velasquez

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Michigan Farm Bureau state annual conference and serve as a delegate representative for my county. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Farm Bureau or organizations like it, members from across the state come together every year to discuss what type of policy they support or oppose. This helps lobbyists at the state and local level prioritize which issues to focus on. It really is a cool experience to be a part of and demonstrates how you can have a greater level of influence in government when lots of individuals come together.

Anyways, I was a delegate for my county and I decided to stand up and propose policy supporting the continuation of Net Neutrality. Now, it’s my personal belief that Net Neutrality should not be a partisan issue – through my view of the world, it’s a consumer protection issue – but I also know that everything is a partisan issue in today’s political landscape.

And farmers tend to be pretty conservative – not super conducive to a proposal supporting regulations.

It was probably going to be fighting an uphill battle, but I proceeded to step up to the microphone and state my desired policy language. I had researched the topic and wrote it out ahead of time so that I said it in an informed, coherent manner. Having put my idea forward, I stepped back from the microphone and took a deep breath – pretty proud of myself for working up the guts to speak out.

And then the debate began.

As expected, there were several people who disagreed with me. They cited past regulation and beliefs about whether or not the internet is a utility that everyone should have access to and the ideal of just letting the free market sort itself out. Not surprisingly, I didn’t agree with many of their counterpoints – but everyone was respectful and their arguments made sense.

Until this one man spoke up.

Young people just don’t think things through all the way, he said. ‘Free’ and ‘open’ and ‘fair’ are all well and good, but they just don’t understand how it really works.

And then I was mad.

Initial Reactions

I can deal with people disagreeing with me. In many cases, I actually enjoy it! Many of my favorite discussions in the past year have been with people I disagree with, where we debate our viewpoints. In all of those interactions, though, the people I debated with were respectful and kept our discussion focused on the ideas at hand – never making it about personal attacks. Not this guy though.

Young people just don’t think things through.

See, what made me so mad about this man was the fact that he wasn’t debating the merits of the argument like so many who had stepped up to the microphone before him. He was attacking me and my intelligence. And, if there’s one thing most people who know me would tell you, it’s never belittle my intellect. It’s the thing I value most about myself and it’s the thing I will take most personally if you doubt it. Sure, we may have disagreeing viewpoints – but don’t ever question that I haven’t done my homework. (I’m a perfectionist with a string of self-doubt – I always do my homework to avoid looking stupid!)

And so, once the delegate session finished, I proceeded to bitch and moan to everyone I could find.

Fine – go ahead and disagree with me, but don’t say I don’t understand the issue! Debate ideas, not people. We can look at the exact same situation and have different opinions – that doesn’t make me less intelligent.

And, yes, I was so offended that I even stooped to the low point of hurling personal attacks back (when talking to my friends, of course – not directly to the man in question).

Young people don’t understand things about the INTERNET? I can be pretty sure we know better than the 70-year-old dude with the flip phone! I know I lost on that policy – no surprise – but I got the votes of the young people in the room who really get it.

Yeah, I don’t claim to be proud of that rant.

In the moment, though, I was hurt. And, as the quote up above said, hurt people want to hurt people. So I bitched and moaned and complained to those I knew would back me up. Anything to make myself feel better.

Practicing Empathy

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about that Lizzie Velasquez quote – which I heard in a recent interview she did on Marie Forleo’s podcast – a lot. And, it dawned on me:

In that situation on the delegate floor, I probably wasn’t the only hurt person hurling insults to make myself feel better.

With that quote floating around in my brain – “hurt people hurt people” – I’ve been attempting to put on my empathy glasses and look at it from the man’s point of view. Yes, the man who shortchanged my knowledge by chalking it up to being a simplistic, idealistic young person. What could he have been thinking and feeling at the time?

Maybe he feels as though he’s becoming irrelevant as more and more young people step forward to take the place of influence that used to be his.

Maybe he’s uncomfortable with his level of understanding around technology, and attacking young people is easier than admitting he’s not sure what Net Neutrality is.

Maybe he’s been burned by government regulations so many times that he can’t see a world in which regulations might protect him, instead of hurt him.

Maybe he’s worked with young people in the past who haven’t valued his experience or knowledge, so assumes we’re all like that.

Maybe he’s just forgotten what it’s like to be young and idealistic, after too many hard years of tough times and untrustworthy people.

Sure, he could just be a jerk. But maybe, like me, he feels as though the world doesn’t value what he brings to the table and was looking for any opportunity to gain the higher ground – to feel important and to feel heard.

Letting Go

I stewed on that man’s words for a very long time. Longer than I should have. And the only person that stewing hurt?

Me.

By attempting to empathize with his experience, though – whether I’m making it all up to make myself feel better or not – I’ve begun to feel a willingness to forgive. His words don’t feel so offensive. It doesn’t hurt my feelings near as much.

Do I like what he said? Not at all. But it doesn’t have the resonance it had when I was under the notion that I was the only one feeling hurt.

Hurt people hurt people.

Ironically, by seeing the hurt in others, it minimizes the hurt we feel ourselves. I can’t guarantee that I won’t have to learn that lesson over and over again. But, for right now, I feel better.

And I’m letting it go.

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

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3 thoughts on “What a Grumpy Old Farmer Taught Me About Empathy

  1. Planet Lonely says:

    In fact, for what I could make of the incident, I think you are in the wrong. You are letting your arrogance and ego take over your better judgement. This man, much older than you, never said you technically don’t understand the Internet, he simply pointed out that you, like young people in general, aren’t yet experienced enough to get the deeper implications of many choices. It’s precisely your youthful arrogance that blinds you to this fact. And besides we all look pathetic fools when we think too much of ourselves.

    • sollmana says:

      That very well may be. I can be overly self-confident at times, maybe even to the point of arrogance, even when that isn’t my intent.

      They say that our response to others words/actions says more about ourselves than it does about them. That those around us are simply a mirror, reflecting back our biggest insecurities. There is no question that his words triggered such strong feelings within me because they hit on my own biases and fears around worth and self-doubt. Am I wrong to feel the way I did? I don’t think so. Our feelings and emotions are part of being human, after all – and I will not apologize for that. Should I have reacted the way I did, though? Probably not. But I get to learn from that – and I’m a harsh enough critic of myself that I do learn.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

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