When I was 7, there was a boy in my first-grade class that I didn’t like. I don’t remember why, his name, face, or any identifying features, but what’s seared into my brain is how I treated him on Valentine’s Day. It’s standard practice to give all the kids in your class a Valentine and for this boy, I decided to let him know how I really felt about him. I took out a piece of notebook paper and wrote, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” until I ran out of space. But that didn’t feel like enough so I asked my brother, “What’s a word that means over and over again?” and he responded, “Et cetera,” which of course I didn’t know how to spell.
So at the end of a page filled with “I hate yous” I tacked on an “etc.” I tucked the paper into an envelope and signed my name so he would know it was from me. The next day I watched his face crumple reading my “Valentine.” He showed the piece of paper to our teacher and she said, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it.” I remember feeling mixed emotions because I did mean it. I did hate him but at the same time, I didn’t expect him to respond the way he did. In my mind, he was a monster, incapable of emotions, but seeing how hurt he was gut-punched me.
As a 7-year-old, I wasn’t thinking about how this little boy would feel. All that mattered was expressing how I felt because I was the wronged party. He was mean to me. What I did to this little boy is what some people are doing now – they are only thinking about how they feel, not the impact their words will have on other people. What I also did to this boy is I dehumanized him. As a 7-year-old, there weren’t dangerous consequences to my perception but that’s not true for adults.
When you perceive a human being as an animal or a monster that must be destroyed, you will put them in a cage. You will bomb the crap out of their homeland. You will decapitate them and their family. You will do whatever it takes to show them how you feel without considering how they feel.
It’s worth mentioning that balance is important. There is such a thing as considering someone else’s feelings too much and that’s known as codependence. By and large though, we’re suffering from a lack of empathy, not too much of it. As a highly sensitive person, I’ve been crying about the ugliness in the world. It feels not great to read people are saying, “Gas the Jews!” and “Wipe Gaza off the face of the Earth!” Have we forgotten, just like I did, that words hurt? They don’t leave a visible mark like bruises do but can ring in your ears long after a physical injury has healed.
What do we do about this? How can we remember each other’s humanity when it feels so very challenging? There’s a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) exercise called simply “the exercise” that is so powerful for this. It’s a way to shift your inner landscape closer to connection, compassion, and peace. Any movement in that direction is a win so don’t worry if you’re not suddenly filled with peace after doing it.
I know it’s easy to let anger fuel us, I’m guilty of that myself, but if you have even a modicum of a desire to create a peaceful planet that goes beyond the limits of small social identities, I encourage you to do the exercise I linked to. Not only that, share it with your friends. As humans, we don’t have to give in to our baser instincts. There is another way. We can move toward peace but it requires more than a ceasefire. It requires us to view each other differently.
I dream of a world where we recognize how dangerous it is to only think about how we feel and not how others feel. A world where we don’t let anger and hatred fuel us. A world where we do the work to see others as human beings no matter how hard it is. A world where we all work together to move toward peace.
Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.