Monday, January 21st, 2019

The Evolution Solution: Getting Along

Posted on June 30, 2018 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By Valerie Kazarian, Staff Writer

So much has happened in the news lately that makes me wonder why we just don’t seem to be able to get along these days. Whether it’s politics or social media or, as tonight, a shooting in Annapolis, we seem to go from calm to furious rage in an instant. I wonder what it would take for us to be able to foresee things before they become a problem. I’m now convinced that what we need is a whole lot of empathy for each other.    

Last fall, an organization in Mechanic Falls had a barbershop quartet concert. They advertised the event with an outdoor sign up for only a week, yet eighty people showed up. Since then they have continued to host similar events, which have become successful fundraisers for their organization.

I belong to a sister organization in Scarborough, and because of the success they had in Mechanic Falls, we thought we’d try it. We lined up a nationally known barbershop quartet, advertised for a month online and in the local newspaper, as well as put out flyers and signs. A whopping twenty people attended. Needless to say, we were disappointed, and we won’t be trying it again very soon.

I’m curious, though, about why there was such a big difference in our experiences. Why are the cultural tastes between these two locations so different? We’re only forty-five miles apart. I checked our demographics on City Data, and learned that the ages of our populations and our racial mixes are similar. We are in many ways alike.

There are two characteristics, though, that are very different. One is income and the other is the population growth rate. Our upstate sister community is a town where income levels for men is half of what it is in Southern Maine. Up there, the number of people is actually decreasing, but in our area, it is increasing – a lot. Between 2000 and 2010 the population for Mechanic Falls has decreased by 8.7 percent while Scarborough’s has increased 13.9 percent.  

Knowing these statistics and facts helps us understand our differences. However, these numbers tell us so much more, specifically that there is a need for people in both towns to recognize and respect our differences – and to appreciate them. While these sister organizations get along just fine, there are tensions that exist between the “two Maines.” The southern part of the state is made up of more affluent people who, to a great degree, have not been raised here. We are different in interests compared to those of the less affluent group, who are more likely to be native Mainers.

Sometimes these differences are pretty benign. In general, our friends in Mechanic Falls are more likely to have a bean supper and we’re more likely to go out for a craft beer. But sometimes the differences are more important. There’s a big difference in political ideology and, they tend to be more religious. They are generally more conservative and Republican and we are more liberal and Democratic.    

One consequence of these inherent differences is separation. Just take a look at Maine’s congressional district map and you’ll see how the differences are recognized with the more liberal Southern Maine defined in one district and the bulk of Maine’s geography defined in the second. This allows each area to elect very different kinds of representatives without interfering with very strong feelings. In other words, liberal Southern Maine can elect Democrats and the rest of Maine can elect Republicans and everyone is happy.

It seems that this is a very “separate but equal” approach to relating to others. It avoids the uncomfortable need to empathize and compromise to keep the peace. If you pay any attention at all to state Legislative matters, you will often see that reasonable, rational decisions are made in an effort to balance different needs in different parts of the state. Those from logging and agricultural areas support marine needs and vice versa. It’s not perfect but it is different from other states that I’ve lived in.

But just as our institutions are culturally empathetic, we as individuals also need to be culturally empathetic. This is not to say that we all have to agree and have the same opinions. I am saying that we need to recognize and appreciate other cultures in which we are embedded. New folks should try to appreciate some elements of Maine life that they may not have discovered and “real” Mainers should realize that being from somewhere else is not evil itself.

Empathy seems to be in short supply these days. We are all so insistent on making sure our own rights and heritages are recognized and respected. Our uniqueness is demanded but our collective identity sometimes suffers by that demand. It seems a shame that we are not confident enough in our own identity that we can without fear appreciate someone or something of difference. We seem to be a society of “self” and “others” and there is little opportunity to express “we” or “us.”

Often these days we hear that we are a “divided nation” and the fingers begin to point to who to blame. We are fractured in so many ways and once it starts it doesn’t seem to end – or even fade. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could, as Atticus Finch so simply stated, “to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it?” But it’s no good if only one group is empathetic. Everyone has to participate. Empathy is an equal opportunity virtue.   

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