Whether in Ashland, Loudonville, Polk, or on the campus of Ashland University, in the hallways of Samaritan Hospital, or around a table at DorLo Pizza, every person from the Ashland County community has a story, a personal history that explains how and why they feel, behave, and live like they do. Unfortunately, many of these people, and maybe even you, have been beat up by life’s circumstances. But there is always hope for healing, especially when we learn to understand one another.
When we change our perspective, asking “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”, we can build stronger people, relationships, and community. The following tips should help you turn the kaleidoscope and see your fellow Ashlanders a little differently.
Find Common Ground
When seeing a mother ignoring her crying baby in the grocery store or parents not following the advice of their child’s teacher or doctor, it can be tempting to judge their parenting abilities. Instead of criticism, use empathy to find ways to relate to the person and their situation. Are you a parent, or have you ever worked with small children? How did you feel when you were criticized? When have you reached the end of your rope or been worn out from the demands of parenting? When you take even a minute or two to find those commonalities, you will see the person with a fresh perspective, perhaps even find a way to encourage and help them.
Believe the Best
When you’re out and about in Ashland, you’re bound to spot behavior you disagree with. You might see a store manager yell at his employees, or a driver tailgates you with a fist in the air. These could very well send you over the edge with their rudeness. But what if they aren’t just being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk? What if there’s a story behind their behavior?
What if their current life challenges are overwhelming them? What if they feel helpless and feel they have no control over their circumstances? Perhaps they are struggling with severe financial problems or dealing with a child in the hospital. Maybe the driver has been unemployed and has finally gotten an interview, only to be delayed for the interview due to car trouble. Even though none of these situations may be the case, taking a moment to remember that some people haven’t had nurturing life models. They may use ineffective or harmful coping strategies when under stress. Believing the best about a person and their intentions may stem your own desire to respond negatively and may give you a greater sense of peace as you develop empathy for others.
Learn About the Psychology of Trauma
Adverse childhood experiences very often turn into medical and other problems later in life, including mental health issues and addictions. Traumatic experiences that start early in our life and continue over time can have a powerful impact on the way we handle stress and respond to life’s challenges. When you see someone who makes positive life choices as “good” and one who makes poor life choices as “bad,” you simplify the complex personal histories that may have led to these choices. Most people who use drugs, for example, are trying to manage the impact of adverse experiences and the effects of a painful life event or a history of adverse experiences.
The good news is that people are resilient: the same brain that becomes changed by trauma can in turn be changed by positive experiences. Personal relationships and community bring healing. A person’s past doesn’t have to define them, especially when they are met with support, not judgment, from others.
Talk to Them
Finding common ground, imagining the best, and understanding how trauma affects us are important steps to building empathy. Of course, the best way to learn about someone’s story is to ask them. While it’s not always possible to make conversation with someone you don’t know, sometimes the opportunity to make a connection presents itself, whether in a waiting room on in line at the store. Give someone an understanding nod if you see them struggling with a tantruming child, even offer to unload their basket. Even if they don’t open up to you, they will know that you care about them and aren’t judging them. A small connection can lead to hope, which can lead to the desire and openness to get help and support, with change and resilience to follow.
The Ashland community can look very different with just a slight turn of the kaleidoscope. For more information or resources about helping people with mental health challenges or addiction, watch this video and spread the word about how we can work together to heal our community.