It's almost a cliche now: homophobic one moment; son or daughter comes out and suddenly you understand. That's happened to so many people that gay marriage is legal now thirty-seven states. All in the last ten years. You have to call that a tribute to the power of empathy.
It happens anecdotally, on a less pervasive scale, in many areas. Someone you love suffers in the life-saving heroics of dying, and you become an advocate for hospice care. You are close to a woman working three jobs to send her daughter to college, and you become a supporter of education loan reform and free community college. Someone where you work gets pregnant with a child she doesn't want in a state with only one remaining abortion clinic and you write a check to Planned Parenthood.
What's the matter with the religious conservatives who want to defund Planned Parenthood? you might think. Don't they live in the real world? What's the matter with the so called fiscal conservatives who won't expand Medicaid in their states to relieve the suffering of their poorest citizens? Can't they see that people don't heal when their only medicine is a stern lecture about personal responsibility?
The answer is: No, they don't live in the real world. They don't see the suffering every day. They know about it, but they don't experience it. Just like we used to know about gay love when most of us didn't know (or know we knew) anyone experiencing it. Exposure--up close and personal--induces empathy. It's the way we're wired. But if it's not up close and personal, it's just background. Like graffiti. Someone ought to clean that up.
Which got me thinking this: what if the suffering of others was up close and personal for most of us? Would we be a better society? Would we care more? Would we do more to help one another? I think so. But how could we do that, expose more of us in our daily lives to the sufferings of others?
I don't think empathy retreats for government workers are what's called for. Or focus groups. Or sensitivity seminars for politicians. I think what we need to do is emote. Each of us. All of us. Show our feelings. Show when we're sad. Angry. Hurt. Desperate. Take our feelings to work and share them. Make show and tell day every day.
I know what you're thinking: that would be chaos. Maybe. But maybe not. There might be a break-in period, but after a while I think we might get good at sharing our problems. Many hands make light work, the saying goes. Just knowing someone knows your predicament, and cares about it, is almost like having a helping hand. And that person, the one who never dreamed you were having such a hard time, might be in a position to do something about it. Maybe she's your boss. Maybe she knows a social worker. Maybe she knows a state legislator. We like to help each other. It makes us feel good about ourselves.
We're the descendants of Puritans. We're capable of great humanity, but we're a little emotionally repressed. We have in our DNA that strict Puritan code of self-reliance, austerity and sacrifice. We expect it of ourselves. We expect it of others. But the reason so many of us are here today is that the Plymouth colonists clung to one another throughout those first winters of suffering and starvation. They got through them together. If they had said to each other, "Good luck, everyman for himself," the Native Americans would have been spared the Puritan Plague but the rest of us might be an asterisk in a history book written by another people.
In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the winters of 1620 and 1621, the suffering of each was painfully obvious to all. In that environment, moral choices that benefited all were made. Now, when the suffering of many is remote to many, different moral choices are being made. We do not think our morals have changed--and indeed, perhaps they have not--but the way we apply them has. Too often now we apply them to principles, rather than to people. Need we be reminded that it's not principles who birth and suckle us? Nor principles who will hold our hand as we die.