'We All Really Need to Do Hard Things': The need for empathy and authenticity in political power.

AuthorHersh, Eitan

In 2017, Lisa Mann was alone, riding the subway in New York City. Lisa is in her mid-fifties, an architect. She and her husband, who is also an architect, are in business together. The couple has two teenage sons, whom they raised in the Windsor Terrace and Park Slope neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Lisa was riding the New York subway when two teenagers got on her train car. They approached a third teenager and started to taunt him aggressively. The third kid may have been developmentally disabled, Lisa first thought. The altercation felt ominous: something dangerous, something ugly, was going to happen. As the train pulled into the next station and opened its doors, other riders quickly shuffled out, away from the brewing fight. Without thinking, Lisa stood up at the subway door near the teenagers and put her foot up against the sliding door, preventing it from closing, which prevented the train from moving on.

"I let the door thud against my foot again and again and again," Lisa remembered, "more a sensation than a sound." What was she doing? Not escaping the car like the others. Not calling for the police. She just stood there, stopping the train from leaving the station.

One of the "almost men," as Lisa called them, got in her face, staring her down. Lisa's mind went to a recent tragedy on a train in Oregon, where three riders intervened in an altercation. A man was harassing other riders. The men who tried to talk him down were stabbed, two of them to death. Lisa stood resolutely, now eye-to-eye with the teenager. Their faces were inches apart and she could see that he was about the age of one of her sons.

Something about Donald Trumps election, which had shaken Lisa, made her want to be less anonymous, to take more responsibility, to intervene in her community. "I didn't want them to hurt each other," she thought. The aggressors told Lisa that the third boy had said something to them that made them mad. Lisa responded, "Do you think you could be the bigger person here? Can you be the bigger guy?"

The boys were surprised. They sat down. They stayed seated, keeping to themselves. A few stops later, they were still on the train when Lisa got off at her stop. As she passed them on her way out, she looked all three in the eye, as if to say, "Please. Don't hurt each other."

Intervening like this isn't natural. Diffusing a fight. Assuming responsibility, respectfully, for the children around you whom you don't know. It was hard for Lisa. She reflected about this experience in writing, in words she couldn't as easily say out loud. "It is time to be... very brave. Brave enough to speak with people we fear, to face the nuances of our bias, to recognize the frailty of humanity, and to forgive."

Lisa told me, "I really started feeling that if we are going to save our democracy, we all really need to work, to do hard things."

Before 2016, Lisa was a voter, read the newspaper, but otherwise practiced "benign pseudo-engagement," as she put it, sometimes dropping references to her friends about token political activity "as a kind of liberal currency." In other words, she...

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