Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
Published in The Auburn Citizen, March 17, 2012
One of the fluffy popular songs from my teen years was the lilting “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Not to denigrate love, but I think that what the world needs right now is a lot more empathy. Empathy seems to be one thing that “there’s just too little of.”
Empathy is often defined as the ability to feel or share something of another person’s experience. An empathic response is one that lets another person know that you are tracking their feelings accurately, and that you really get what they are saying. With all his failings, President Bill Clinton exemplified empathy when he would say “I feel your pain.” The operative word here is “feel,” and it does not have to be expressed with words. As clergy, sometimes the most empathic response we can make when we visit a family following a death or other tragedy is to sit with the person or persons in silence, and look into their eyes. The poet, William Blake, captures the feeling of empathy in his Songs of Innocence and Experience when he writes:
Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
Empathy came to mind over the past few weeks as I watched the genocide being carried out in Syria. Who cannot feel shock and revulsion at the sight of hospitals being deliberately attacked, and innocent neighborhoods under siege from Syrian artillery as Assad’s forces have gone door to door, murdering noncombatants?
Empathy is not something that one political party or religious group owns. It is a human response to the sufferings of another person. Obviously, empathy makes its way into political or religious discussions when we fail to take into account another person’s experiences or sensitivities. The sad reality is that few laws are written with the people whose lives will be most affected sitting in the room. The recent Congressional circus on contraception, in which all of the people invited to testify were men, was but one example. Couldn’t our Congressmen find a qualified woman to speak on an issue so germane to women’s health?
Gun control is another. Within the past few weeks, the Virginia Legislature decided to overturn a bill limiting people to one handgun purchase per month. In a state that witnessed the worst shooting rampage in recent American history, when Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people before turning a gun on himself, families of the victims turned out and raised their voices to protest what they saw as an insult to their children’s lives. Unfortunately, the National Rifle Association (which has somehow spent a lot more time defending handguns, armor piercing bullets, and assault rifles than shooting sports—unless you consider shooting people “sport”) demanded removal of the limit. Rather than having the NRA’s check writers in the room, perhaps the Virginia legislators should have had the families of the victims in their assembly, and then looked into their eyes as they cast their ballots. Ironically, they cast their ballots on the day that a third high school student died from gunshot wounds outside Cleveland, Ohio.
On one level, empathy flies in the face of our “winner take all” or “I Me Mine” culture. Too often, the message that seems to dominate our society resembles the bumper sticker with the message “Whoever dies with the most toys wins the game.” We hear similar messages from Super PAC donors who freely speak of spending in the tens of millions of dollars to get their candidates elected. What does it say about our society that such blowhards believe that this is even an option? What does it say about politicians who will do whatever “tricks” such braggarts demand for that money?
I believe that most of us are better than that. The nearly universal expressions of revulsion and disgust at what is happening in Syria are but one sign of hope. They are a sign of hope that underneath all of our political differences, there is a layer of compassion, and the ability to “feel another’s woe.” It is that same nascent empathy that it took Comedy Central to reach, when it made each of us ask what it would be like for some inept and unempathic legislator to have a probe stuck into our bodies.
As Unitarian Universalists, empathy has been at the core of our faith. One might call it our version of “applied theology.” Our services are held at 10:30 on Sunday mornings. All are welcome!