Hug A Nazi Or Hug A Tree? Why Not Both?

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We all know the benefits of hugging a White Dogwood tree, but what about hugging a white supremacist? Scientific data abounds that shows reaching out, if only to listen, to someone you disagree with is powerful.

Human beings are social animals. We evolved to need one another. We also evolved, unfortunately, to distrust strangers, and to scapegoat others based on split second assessments. This same tendency is well worth examining. Maybe when we open our hearts and minds to those we clump all together as “just haters” we can begin to see their humanity.

A study at the University of Zurich, (Hein, Tobler, Engelmann, and Vollberg) found that with two interacting groups of strangers, avoiding a painful shock to one of the other’s team members could be learned. Once an alternative way to avoid giving a shock was learned, neuronal activity in the brain indicating human empathy was recorded.

What, however, is a positive interaction between strangers? In the study, scientists chose a monetary award, something measurable and precise. But in the raging streets of anger, backlash and marginalized protestors, a positive interaction can be as simple as a genuine smile, while on a tree-lined pathway.

You can de-escalate tension by seeking out someone who disagrees with you upon a social issue and walk with them among the trees. Appreciating the trees that make life possible is a good place to start a dialogue, because ecopsychologically speaking, you are among the living elements that do not judge you, but merely allow you to exist.

Acknowledging nature, both within ourselves and externally, creates a more comfortable backdrop for finding our common human nature. Once we find that, we are no longer separate beings, our very air is exchanged with one another, and the living world surrounds us and affirms life’s beauty.

Threat of injury or death, as revealed in the recent Charlottesville tragedy seem to suggest that we should have zero tolerance for violent bigots. But note that most people did NOT strike out violently. This simple observation is something we should be grateful for in the aftermath of Charlottesville. This is not to suggest that our President said the right thing in his condemnation of “both sides.”

There is a difference between threatening protest and peaceful protest. And that difference, as it echoes down from the courage of leaders like Martin Luther King, is to be found in the resilience and power of calm, civil exchange.

We now have streets flowing with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, how can hugging your political rival ever seem realistic? Life After Hate is one example of an organization that seeks to spread love by welcoming former ‘haters’ who seek compassion, understanding, forgiveness for self and others. In other words: LOVE.

Human beings are not born National Socialists, but we are born to be social. We wish to belong. To diffuse anger and alienation, use humor, genuine listening, compassion and most importantly, our common humanity. This has to happen one single incident of positive interaction at a time. It does not mean you should open with a bear hug, it does mean you must open with a vulnerable heart, and acknowledge your own limits on those issues where you just don’t want to hear what you have already prejudged to be another whining, victim’s rant.

What the hater may not know, is that belonging is the true nature of life. The haters, and we all have been one at one time or another, are saying “you do not belong.” Racism, for example ignores that we all have a glorious, shared genetic make-up.

And our intolerance of intolerance says the same thing, “You are not one of us, you are AntiFa, or Alt Right, or white, male, youth… etc. etc.” It is not my point to draw a false equivalency, but to note the subtle mental shift when anyone internalizes the message: “It’s us versus them.”

It can never be us versus them, because like the trees, clouds, air and animals, we are all linked together in one creation.

When any group is examined closely, whether it be gang bangers, extremists, or gun enthusiasts, Civil war buffs, or even the KKK, we need to look for the shape of their humanity under those white hoods. It is there, just as the humanity of the German people was there decades ago. Their shame and loss at what mayhem Hitler had brought eventually helped them to construct a better nation. Their victims need not be re-victimized, if we honestly — even if imperfectly — agree to learn from even the most egregious past mistakes.

That is the beginning. Don’t avoid those you love who you think harbor bigoted positions. Draw them out, lovingly and cautiously. Ask them what they fear, genuinely. Exchange evidence and stories for positions on both sides of every argument. Find a grain of truth, and from that grain create a long stretch of beach that can take in wave after wave of extremism. Contain those waves in good natured calm. More than you know, you are more capable of diminishing an ocean of hate.

Don’t forget to mindfully take a deep breath. Thank the trees for their silent vigil as wise witness to our sometimes slow, but hopeful, growing pains.

Please give me a little clap, and I will happily plant a tree in your name!

University of Zurich. “Empathy with strangers can be learned.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 December 2015. <>.

Written by

Ecopsychologist, Writer, Farmer, Defender of reality, and Cat Castle Custodian.

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