I always feel a bit like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window when I look out of my own rear windows across a narrow driveway and into the apartments around me. I usually witness brief, mundane moments: two people eating by a table in a kitchen identical to mine; a mother walking slowly around her living room cradling a baby; a cat looking out of a window, waiting for its owner to return home. Kids play together and ride their bikes back and forth within view of their mothers who sit on their apartment buildings’ front steps, or they line up near the ice cream truck that passes down this driveway every weekday once the weather turns warm. Adults lean against their cars, chatting with each other in relaxed, indecipherable voices.
I love looking out of the window and seeing life happening around me; it makes me feel connected to humanity in a cliched but significant way. The neighborhood feels American in all its ethnic diversity. I know what this country is when I look outside my window and see the warm glow of a light on in a neighbor’s apartment; I know we share a space and (hopefully) agree to do each other no harm and even, occasionally, to help each other if we need a hand.
When I think about the country at large, however, I have no idea what it’s doing or what it’s about. Maybe that’s at the root of what plagues us nationally and has always been haunting this nation persistently divided by an us vs. them mentality. Those divisions are natural; we group ourselves with whom we share a variety of characteristics and opinions. But it’s a destructive dynamic nonetheless because the United States is neither a monolith nor a nation that can comfortably be dominated by one side or the other. And yet a sense of bipartisanship or even coalition appears impossible amongst the tribalism that defines our politics and identity.
Does tribalism exist when there’s a resistance to empathy? When we care more about our own team than the others? Despite desires to strive for a more perfect union, this country was founded on cruelty, misogyny, genocide, and slavery. For hundreds of years, writers, artists, politicians and other citizens have publicly called for people to soften their hearts, revive their consciences, and pay attention to those suffering around them rather than silently tolerate inhuman policies or politics.
What might be needed is not only a new vision for the future that addresses concerns about healthcare, our economy and the benefits/dangers of automation, and the cultural and racial divisions that persist but also a new way of invoking or constructing empathy for the “other.” A desire for privilege, to strive for, protect and accumulate power and wealth and to defeat those who seem to stand in our way continually undermines this empathy, and it is doing this especially now. It seems that we’ve come to a time again for the construction/invention of feeling, an awakening of our conscience.
Whoever can channel the emotional connection we might have for our closest neighbors and apply it to how we imagine ourselves as a nation might save us from ourselves. I say this as a person who is angry at half of the country and unable (perhaps even unwilling) to truly understand the other side. Tribalism often feels justified and even righteous; cooperating with people who are eager to hurt you seems not only unwise but insane. And yet…that tribalism is our exploitable weakness, so empathy for the other, a desire to look out for each other, because we can imagine others in their most human and mundane moments, may be the only way that this country isn’t just a loose, disparate collection of antagonistic strangers.