Sadness, empathy, and the salvation of our political system

America is an increasingly sad nation. Founded on the right of every citizen to pursue happiness, America in 2018 appears to have less happiness than ever before. In fact, the United States currently ranks 18th on the World Happiness Index Report, which has also reported substantial declines in happiness occurring over the last 10 years. Plus, this country just feels sad.

I’ve always felt that identifying unhappiness in anyone is fairly easy, all one has to do is look for certain signals. Among those signals are an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions, scapegoating, and indiscriminately lashing out on Twitter.

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We all continue to roll our eyes at CNN’s probing “talking to voters in Pennsylvania” segments because even willful political ignorance can’t escape the reality staring us all in the face — many of those voters are just plain sad. Sad because our public education system has failed to prepare much of our citizenry for the 21st Century marketplace, sad because — for many — wages haven’t risen for decades, sad because their illnesses can’t be treated affordably. Whatever the reason, Americans are just sad.

Sadness, mind you, isn’t a partisan characteristic in America — we on the left bear sadness as well, but whereas the right’s sadness is often expressed through aggression, our sadness is expressed through fearful condescension, which one could argue is more corrosive.

It’s striking to me that this reality isn’t addressed more in the national discourse. Sure, we speak about anger every day. Republicans are angry, Democrats are angry — we’re all angry. But, to cite anger when analyzing politics is to miss the point almost entirely. Sadness, on the other hand, offers an infinitely more humanizing explanation of political discord.

Having the empathy necessary to understand someone else’s sadness is critical to bridging partisan divides. For instance, rising levels of opioid addiction can be attributed to economic anxiety and declining mental health standards, among other things, but to say sadness doesn’t figure prominently into a discussion about drugs used to dull reality is, again, to miss the point. We must empathize with the sadness that is consuming Appalachia or risk falling prey to the evils of its origin ourselves. Now, more than ever, empathy is irreplaceably vital.

Cut to the funeral of George H.W. Bush on Dec. 5. We all either learned about or had been called back to the history of his presidency. 

In revisiting the H.W. Bush tenure, I couldn’t resist reading as much as I could about his role in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the most consequential civil rights bill since the Civil Rights Act, because it was likely one of the most empathetic pieces of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress.

While eulogizing the president, Jon Meacham, Bush’s biographer, referred, as he often does, to Bush’s life code: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” I’ve read that about 50 times since the death of our 41st President, mostly because the calls to action are so simple, yet so impossibly difficult to heed on a daily basis. Also, because that motto is clearly that of a happy man, who did what he could in life to bring happiness to others, no matter the cost.

For many, strength and humility are born from confidence. Bush was able to demonstrate historic empathy because he was confident in the man he was — he didn’t need petty validation to show love for others. 

I’m starting to believe that we don’t talk about sadness because we feel it’s an embarrassing trait — something to hide or be ashamed of. Unfortunately, that perception is unlikely to change, but what can change is our ability to disarm one another by having the courage to talk about our sadness. Then, and only then, can we begin to understand each other’s politics.

The sooner we understand that our sadness doesn’t disqualify us from participating in honest political debate, the sooner we’ll be able to address real problems, like rising opioid addictions.

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I live in the world of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) created by social media, a pressure to be perfect unlike any in human history. This world has stripped us of our humility, our ability to be vulnerable, and to be sad. To discuss, understand and address sadness, I submit that we must declare a global war on vanity and conceit. Frankly, we need to learn how to lose. We need to learn how to fail. Because, after all, it’s ok to fail — it’s always been ok to fail. In fact, in my life, few things have proven more important than my failures. I will consider myself a failed parent if I don’t put my son in a position to fail, and fail often, because without failure, he will never succeed. Without sadness, he will never be happy.

A discussion about sadness is rarely genuine without touching upon the idea of death. My sense is that sadness in this world is largely grounded in the existential uncertainty of life. What we don’t know scares us, and there’s nothing more unknowable than what awaits us all in the end. And yet, it’s fundamental to understanding our common condition and thus to achieving true happiness.

Most everyone will cite other people as a central component to happiness — family, friends, etc. — so isn’t it clear what matters above all, in the end? The only cure for human sadness is human kindness and empathy — without those two characteristics, our political system is doomed to fail, along with the rest of us, and the pursuit of happiness will be replaced by the pursuit of retweets.

The war on conceit and vanity will only be won by people committing themselves to the happiness of others.

Casey Mindlin is the Director of Partnerships for Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books. Mindlin previously served as Director of Business Development and Legislative Associate for the lobbying firm American Continental Group. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a BA in Political Science.