Can Kindness Reunite America? Part II by Jessica Yang

L-R, Vanessa Garcia, Audrey Vinci and Jessica Yang. Student speakers who have thoughts about kindness. Photo by Loreen Berlin

For readers who may have not seen last week’s edition of the ENE, we are featuring for the next two weeks, essays written by high school students in which they assert how “kindness” can reunite America.

Given the incidents of the past week, the task of reunification seems a world away from where it was just last week. America’s growing political divide just seemingly gets worse.
Last week, Audrey Vinci made her case about how good Samaritans and acts of kindness can perhaps usher in new meaning and understanding among neighbors and fellow citizens.

This week, Jessica Yang explores a pandemic-fueled “empathy deficit” and how kindness is “always available for people willing to see it.”

As interesting as we may think the thoughts of these high school girls, should we not ponder what it says about us as a human race when girls yet old enough to drive cite “open warfare” among Americans and families “driven apart by political ideologies?”

Perhaps there are many ways to interpret such understanding at this tender age. Either it has been “normalized” and younger Americas are imprisoned to live in an age of rage, or, perhaps that they recognize it so early they will dedicate their lives to creating a different reality.

So, it is critically important, I think, that we listen closely to students; young people, who are living through an information explosion the likes of which could never have been pondered centuries ago.

The human experience is changing exponentially, while the various ecosystems, at all levels, that make up our worlds are seemingly unable to keep up. Thus, the many conflicts, and more sadly likely to come.

In listening to the voices of tomorrow, we can perhaps find hope for today. This week, Jessica Yang makes her case for the flexibility of normalcy and how kindness begins with us all.

Normalcy is flexible
Kindness starts with you

By Jessica Yang

It has been a roller coaster of a year, 3 years, wait when did the pandemic start. Between Corona, murder hornets, the world being on fire then not being on fire, and then being on fire again. I’ve begun to wonder if the Maya calendar got the date wrong on the end of the world, perhaps instead of 2012 they meant 2021.

But as a new year dawns and hope begins to emerge, I am left with one burning question. How can kindness reunite this country? Listen, when we can more easily flame people on Twitter than we can flame grill our own dinner (and we turn to Grubhub for BOTH problems) or we forget how to shake someone else’s hand? How do you smile underneath a mask? How much hand sanitizer is too much hand sanitizer? You know we have a problem.

The point is, during the pandemic between baking bread and checking the news, a phenomenon has emerged where we lost the ability to connect with other humans and at worst, the ability to empathize. We’ve forgotten how to be nice to each other.

Yes, the isolation away from awkward but polite coffee shop lines made us forget what our kindergarten teachers instilled into us so long ago; if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. So today, we’re going back to kindergarten and sharing how this problem evolved, next we’re going to take a buddy to the effects on our world, and finally hug it out in the most covid safe way possible to a few solutions.
So one of the first lessons you learn in kindergarten is that sharing is caring. So let’s first share the problem and cause of how the snick snack, frick frack did we get here and second, what the heckalrooney is an empathy deficit?

Well, first, when that fateful March came marching along into our lives, we had to come to a standstill as people were encouraged to stay in their homes. The Scientific American describes our decreased social interaction as incapable of fulfilling the quota for human empathy. The COVID-19 pandemic, tumultuous economics, the recent election, misinformation, horrifying accounts of racism, and overall general unrest that plagues our lives nowadays puts a lot of strain on peoples’ squishy brains.
Dr. Kristin Neff, helps explain why: The problem is that when we’re in the presence of suffering, or we see it on TV, or while scrolling down your Instagram feed, we feel it. It’s comparable to a sponge. If you soak up too much, you can overwhelm yourself, and suddenly you can’t take anymore.

As COVID-19 spread, researchers found that people were experiencing worse mental health problems than before the pandemic—high symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Up to half showed serious signs of depression, while up to 35 percent showed serious anxiety. Between dealing with burnout and self-isolation for the past few years during the pandemic, some people may struggle to have empathy for others while we continue to be in survival mode. But empathy is incredibly important to continue to have, both for ourselves and others.

So now that we know what an empathy deficit is, grab your buddy and let’s talk about some of the effects that the lack of kindness has had on society. This whole situation has made us forget how to be nice to each other. We’ve forgotten that every other person we encounter on the streets is stuck in the same world we’re all in and while we have to live with each other, it is the least we can do to just…be nice. Kindness has always been there. Kindness is always prevalent, through those in Berlin offering a bed, food, and a roof over people fleeing from the war in Ukraine.

Kindness is always prevalent, through extra hours made by kindergarten teachers so that even over zoom, class can be engaging. Kindness is always prevalent, through the eyes of someone willing to see it. It is there. And sometimes, it’s okay to look on the bright side. I understand we can’t really hug each other right now, as social distance is still very much a thing to keep us all safe, let’s look at some solutions that give us the same comfort we need.

So how do we fix this? How do we get rid of this empathy deficit and fix our country so we’re going to be better, brighter, and more empathetic towards each other? How are we going to whisk away the oodles and oodles of apathy that leaks out of the crevices of our society nowadays? I’m so very glad you asked!
The answer is, we’re not going to. That’s impossible.
You can’t force people to be nice, you can’t shove empathy down someone’s throat. It’s a learned skill, and can be forgotten as well. It’s simply far too much for a single person, even a small group of people, to take onto them. Like previously, I mentioned how your brain is a sponge for all things. You’ll overwhelm yourself, and then where would we be?

Back to square one. Apathetic and hopeless. Instead of trying to hold up the world, let’s see how we can integrate kindness, empathy, and respect into your own life, in the hopes we can achieve something smaller, in the communities around us.

A 2014 study from Stanford University finds that empathy is not a fixed point we can all achieve. But there are ways we can all empathize. First, actively listen, more than you speak. An empathetic person listens first; and only speaks after they’ve carefully heard.

‘Next, be vulnerable. We fear vulnerability because we worry that others may perceive us as foolish or weak. Brené Brown—a brilliant woman at the forefront of vulnerability research—says that vulnerability actually helps us connect with others.

Finally, learning to respect other peoples’ differences. While we do not need to like everyone or pay homage to people just because they are in a position of power, we should try to be respectful. Its due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others that is true respect.

So basic human kindness is not something we’re allowed to take away or rescind if someone doesn’t agree on your opinions about your favorite anime character.
The second you claim you’ve lost that respect for someone is the second you don’t see them as an equal, another human, and that is the most dangerous thing humanity can do.

So while we can’t solve discrimination, create laws, or achieve world peace in ten minutes, we can find simple ways to integrate kindness, empathy and respect into our own lives. Because at the end of the day, you’re the only one who can change how you treat other folks. It has to start with you.

So today we went back to kindergarten. We shared some problems, grabbed a friend for the effect, and hugged our way to a few solutions. Today, we remembered the lessons that our teachers oh so long ago in a non-pandemic age taught us, and we’re applying it now, and in the future.

Normalcy is flexible. We will always change and fluctuate with this world. What shouldn’t change is how we continue to love, appreciate, and care for the people around us. You’re here, and now it’s your turn to do your part and just be nice to people. That’s it. Simple, cliche, cheesy– but still, it’s the best we can do.