Empathy and Compassion in 21st Century America
In a memorial service held last month in Tucson, Arizona for the victims of the 2012 mass shooting that took place there, President Obama called on Americans to “sharpen our instincts for empathy” so that we can become a more civil people. The President’s call for a more empathic culture and civil society raises these troubling questions: What has gone so terribly wrong with America? Why are we becoming more aggressive, violent, self-interested and intolerant as a society? The problem goes far deeper than just blaming the escalating rhetoric of political pundits and talk show hosts, or of vilifying the so-called “gun culture”. Like it or not, we are a country governed by the rule of law, and the Second Amendment is part of that law, which is the Constitution of the United States. Instead, it has been my observation that they are playing off a deeper sensibility – or fear – that has become engrained in the thinking of many Americans.
It is our core beliefs about the very nature of human beings that make us so susceptible to the rising plague of hate and mistrust, even to the point of paranoia, and of the intolerance and unfocused rage that is spreading across the land. The current manhunt in California for an apparently berserk ex-cop is only the latest example. The American character was forged, in large part, on a skewed idea about who we are as a people that was spawned hundreds of years ago in the Protestant Reformation. From the very moment John Winthrop and his flock of Puritans landed on American shores in 1630, we came to believe that we are God’s chosen people, when in fact the Bible states clearly and repeatedly that it is the nation of Israel that is God’s chosen people. For Scripture that backs this up irrefutably, please see Deuteronomy chapter 34, verses 1-4 (“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land – from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region from the valley of Jericho, the city of palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I will give it to your descendants’”, and Joshua chapter one, verses 2-5 (“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place that you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert in Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”) For the most detailed explanation found in the Bible, see Joshua chapters 13-20, which is the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict that simmers to this day.
The ideology that God has a unique covenant with America that makes us special among the peoples of the world is a load of bull. We have become the fiercest supporters of the erroneous belief that the naked pursuit of individual self-interest in the market – the pursuit of profit based on greed – is the defining feature of human nature. We have by extension become believers in “American Exceptionalism,” that our political ideology and our capitalist economic system are somehow superior to all others. This political hubris was the basis for the Cold War of the late 1940’s to the late 1980’s. In our social life, we are the strongest supporters of Social Darwinism, that life is a combative struggle in which only the strongest survive. These highly regarded core “beliefs” are antithetical to a mature empathic sensibility, an antidote to compassion, and they are mean-spirited and selfish to say the least.
It’s no wonder, then, that when President Obama spoke of empathy during his first year in office, and again at the memorial service in Tucson, mentioning that it is the guiding philosophical principle in his life, he was pummeled and excoriated in the main-stream press as being weak and unfit to be the “Commander-in-Chief” of the most powerful nation on Earth. The question that is bothering me here is: What is there about the interrelated concepts of empathy and compassion that conjures up so much derision? Why does this seem to frighten so many people? Perhaps it’s because being empathic and/or compassionate requires giving up the pretense of being special and anointed, as being “God’s chosen people”, which is tantamount to being usurpers of God’s holy covenant as stated in the above passages of Scripture. It means being mindful of other points of view, which requires the maintenance of an open mind, not to mention tolerance of those who are different from ourselves. It also means abandoning the idea that narcissistic self-interest is the only thing that matters. And, most important, it means being sympathetic to the plight of others and being sensitive to their needs. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, that you do for me”.
New discoveries in human evolutionary development that encompass mankind’s anthropology as well as advances in psychiatry and psychology are challenging our long held shibboleths about human nature. We are learning that human beings are biologically predisposed – not for aggression, violence, self-interest and pleasure-seeking utilitarian behavior – but rather for intimacy and sociability, and that empathy and compassion are the emotional and cognitive means by which we express these drives. To empathize is to experience the condition of others as if it was our own. It is to recognize their vulnerabilities and their struggle to flourish and to become something more than what they are. To express compassion with others requires that we first acknowledge our own vulnerabilities and to confront our own feelings of insecurity. It is because we realize that life is fraught with challenges, that we are all imperfect, fragile and vulnerable, that life is precious and worthy of being treated with respect, that we are then able to reach out and, through our empathic regard, express our solidarity with our fellow beings. Empathy is how we celebrate each other’s existence. To empathize is to civilize, and to have and practice compassion is what sums up the two greatest commandments of Christ (“Love the Lord your God with all your strength, with all your might, with all your heart and with all your spirit. And the second command is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself”).
Empathy is the real “invisible hand” of history. It is the social glue that has allowed our species to express solidarity with each other over ever broader domains. The advent of the internet in the last 20 years, and more recently social media, has increased this phenomenon exponentially. Empathy has evolved over history. In forager-hunter societies, empathy rarely went beyond tribal blood ties. In the great agricultural age, empathy extended past blood ties to associational ties based on religious or racial identification. Jews began to empathize with fellow Jews as if in an extended family, Christians began empathizing with fellow Christians, Muslims with Muslims, and so on. In the Industrial Age, with the emergence of the modern nation-state, empathy extended once again, this time to people of like-minded national identities. Americans began to empathize with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese. Today empathy is beginning to stretch beyond national boundaries to include the whole of humanity. We are coming to see the biosphere as our indivisible community, and our fellow human beings and creatures as our extended evolutionary family.
This doesn’t mean that our national loyalties, religious beliefs and blood affiliations are not important to us any more. But when they become a litmus test for defining the human sojourn, all other beliefs become the “alien other”. For a long time, we Americans have been obsessed with “creating a more perfect union.” Maybe it is time to put equal or greater weight on creating a more empathic and compassionate society. The hard economic times that have been ongoing since the economic implosion of 2008 up to the present serve to add even more emphasis to this timeless truth. We have the stark choice of either upholding each other for the mutual benefit of all, or facing mutually assured self-destruction. It’s all up to us.