An Excerpt from The Healing Power of Empathy: True Stories About Transforming Relationships
Edited by Mary Goyer
Sixteen-year-old Zeke was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. I met him when I had the opportunity to work with some high schoolers in the San Francisco Bay Area, teaching a two-day workshop on nonviolence. The first day was focused on how to transcend fixed ideas and perceptions of others while considering their human needs. On the second day, we worked primarily on conflict resolution skills, but we also really wanted to support the connections between students.
Zeke was uncomfortable with all of this, and by day two, he had sat with his discomfort long enough. In a room full of people he saw as Jewish, Gay, Black, Liberal, the wrong kind of White, and Female, he had trouble keeping quiet. When it was revealed that a Jewish girl’s sister was getting married to another woman, he couldn’t help but to say what was on his mind.
“That’s just wrong!” he exclaimed.
“Are you uncomfortable because there are people in here you’re not used to connecting with?” I asked.
In response, Zeke explained his beliefs about why certain people are simply “born inferior.” After this monologue, that stimulated agitation in several people throughout the room, he added a bit more.
“Well, you know, I hate these people but don’t get me wrong. I’m not a violent person. I wouldn’t want harm to come to them. It’s just I hate certain people.”
“Hmm.” I replied. “Now I’m confused, because you’re saying you hate these people yet you don’t want any harm to come to them. I am guessing you might even have some confusion about your feelings towards these people. Because you say you don’t want to be violent, yet you speak of hate.”
Zeke continued to listen with his arms folded across his chest, his eyes fixed on mine.
I continued, “And I’m also confused about your choice to be a member of the KKK. From what I know, they have created an amazing amount of violence against the folks you say you hate. Can you tell me why you’re a member? What was your primary motivation to join?”
Zeke looked right into me, and said, “My dad is a member of the KKK!”
The room bristled with comments. One student, Terrance, chimed in, ”Ah man, just cause your dad’s a hater doesn’t mean you gotta be one, too!”
Nodding to that profound statement, I looked into Zeke’s eyes as intensely as he had looked into mine and reflected, “I’m actually hearing how much you’d like to connect to your dad. I am also hearing that maybe you feel conflicted about being a member of an organization that tries to create connection through violence and hating others.”
Leaning toward Zeke, trying to tangibly soften the room with my presence, I asked, “Has this really met your need to connect with your father?”
“Yeah, I guess I joined cuz I hoped to get closer to my dad. I just wanted to get along with him,” he replied, looking a little unsteady.
Zeke’s eyes swelled with water but he was not going to cry, not in front of this group. He paused, breathed a full inhale followed by a very audible exhale, as if he was trying to regain his composure. I wasn’t sure if he was impacted by the gravity of this new awareness or if he merely wanted to hold back his tears.
It didn’t matter. The wheels were already in motion.
When Zeke sat for a little longer in this empathic connection, which afforded him the opportunity to link up his mind with his heart, he realized that he had not joined the KKK because he hated certain people. Rather, he was desperate to find a way to connect with his father.
We carried on with the day, but he walked up to me after the workshop and said, “You know, that was the first time I felt fear begin to leave my body. I’m actually relieved.”
With his new clarity, he began to assess the effectiveness of his choice, and decided that hating others was truly not his path, not an expression of his authentic presence. He was able to get past the enemy images his mind had created about some of these other people - and the fixed ideas he had about himself - to see what he really needed. Zeke ultimately decided to quit the KKK. He developed new friendships. And he continued to work on various other strategies to find connection with his dad.
Catherine Cadden - www.zenvc.org
Read more stories in The Healing Power of Empathy; True Stories About Transforming Relationships