empathy

How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything

Antique statues, neko92vl / Shutterstock.com
Antique statues, neko92vl / Shutterstock.com

Strange but beautiful things happen when we begin to identify with people who are culturally different. A few years ago, I became friends with Peter, a guy at my church who also happened to be an undocumented immigrant. One day over lunch, he shared that his mother (whom he hadn’t seen in 15+ years) had recently been diagnosed with a terminal disease. He desperately wanted to visit her, but due to his immigration status, he knew that if he left the U.S. he wouldn’t be allowed to return. Given his obligations to his family in the U.S., Peter made the heart-breaking decision to not to visit his dying mom.

As a U.S. citizen, I hadn’t personally experienced the trials of being undocumented or felt the frustration of geographic immobility while a loved one approached death in a far off land. But throughout my friendship with Peter — getting to know his family in the U.S., listening to him share about the harrowing challenges he experienced on a daily basis, and seeing photographs of his life and family in his home country — I got a glimpse of the world from his perspective. In many ways, Peter’s life was marked by sorrow and loss – and that was more evident than ever during our lunch conversation that day.

The Shameful Politics of Scorn

An impoverished young man man on a bench. Photo courtesy Dariush M/shutterstock.
An impoverished young man man on a bench. Photo courtesy Dariush M/shutterstock.com

I got a glimpse into the politics of scorn this week.

The visual was a photo accompanying a New York Times article on rental properties in Memphis, Tenn. The article itself seemed innocuous, about how foreclosed homes are being scooped up by outside investors and turned into rentals.

The photo, however, was troubling. It showed a young man lazing in a large chair while his two children stared numbly at a television screen and his wife tapped away on a cell phone.

I have no clue into this family’s character. But the visual screamed: “Idle! Lazy!”

On Scripture: Good Samaritans All Around

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan. Photo courtesy Renata Sedmakova/shutterstock.com

In recent weeks, a number of controversial and divisive political questions have dominated the news. Race and voting rights, abortion in Texas, and marriage equality at the Supreme Court have opened anew the scars of old political and cultural wars. 

In this conflicted political ambit, the Samaritan's bold compassion is a needed reminder today. Let’s remember to be kind to the stranger, certainly. But just as important is that the story of the Good Samaritan also invites us to imagine ourselves in a different part of this narrative.

Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.

Love One Another (some restrictions apply)

Designed by Ken Davis

NOTHING MOVES ME more than a heartfelt tweet. Seriously. Don’t think I’m making fun here. I understand that the Twitter universe (“Twitterverse”? “World o’ Twits”?) is the current preferred method for connecting with the most people in the shortest amount of time. It’s certainly preferable to my generation’s method of communicating, which was to spray-paint the sides of barns.

But if the inspirational tweet is from a member of Congress—taking time away from doing the nation’s business in the most powerful city in the world, depending on where the Koch brothers are living at the time—I can get really choked up.

“My thoughts and prayers are with those in Oklahoma affected by the tragic tornado outbreak.”

Oozing with empathy and originality, this tweet was sent out by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn a few hours after the extreme weather event in May that ravaged the town of Moore. What the tweet did not include—and his office quickly added, lest survivors searching through the rubble for loved ones got the wrong impression—was that the senator would not support federal relief funding unless it was offset elsewhere. If it’s not in the budget, according to Coburn’s long-standing philosophy, it’s not happening.

But let’s be fair: With a tweet you only get 140 characters, so in addition to the words “thoughts” and “prayers,” there’s barely enough room left over to express the important concepts of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “bootstraps,” three concepts people just love to think about when they’re crawling from under what used to be their house. Coburn’s point seems to be that when you’re covered with sheetrock, torn family photographs, and spray-painted sides of barns, the last thing you want is some government bureaucrat arriving with a meddlesome helping hand.

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Our Dolls, Our Selves

WHEN MY DAUGHTER, Jessica, was 7 years old, some of her best friends had American Girl dolls, so of course she desperately needed one as well. We asked three or four family members to chip in—these were expensive dolls—and got her one for Christmas.

Her doll, “Addy,” came with a story, as did each in the American Girl line. Addy and her mother had escaped from slavery in the American South, and they “followed the drinking gourd” north to Philadelphia, where they were eventually reunited with the rest of Addy’s family. It was a gripping story, especially for a 7-year-old. And the fact that Addy was about my daughter’s age made it all the easier for her to connect.

“It wasn’t so much that I learned ‘facts’” about slavery and race from the Addy stories, Jessica, now 27, told me recently, “but they made it all more personal. Addy was young, like me—I could relate to it.”

Other women who grew up with the dolls echoed that sense of connection with the various American Girl stories. Janelle Tupper, campaigns assistant at Sojourners, was around 7 when she received the “Kirsten” doll, a Swedish immigrant to the U.S. “My most distinct memory from the stories was that, on the boat, her best friend dies of cholera,” Tupper said. “Reading that passage was pretty devastating to me as a kid.” Other books in the American Girl series addressed issues of the day, from child labor to women’s suffrage. And while Tupper said she wasn’t aware as a child of the social justice themes in the stories—“I was just imagining life in the different time periods through the eyes of a character I identified with”—she now sees the series as addressing “societal change in terms that an 8- year-old can understand, often told through the characters’ friendships and family stories.”

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Anesthetics and Advocates Below the Poverty Line

 Dollar bill and quarters, Shipov Oleg / Shutterstock.com
Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.50 per day, Dollar bill and quarters, Shipov Oleg / Shutterstock.com

By definition, an anesthetic is a drug used to relieve pain (analgesia), relax (sedate), induce sleepiness (hypnosis), spark forgetfulness (amnesia), or to make one unconscious for general anesthesia. Anesthetics are generally administered to induce or maintain a state of anesthesia and facilitate a procedure. I believe that anesthetic can be employed as a striking image for particular deficiencies in faith-based responses to extreme poverty. 

As one can cite many examples where faith is proclaimed and practiced solely as an escape from – rather than engagement with – the numerous struggles associated with impoverishment, we recognize that anesthesia is incomplete without corresponding acts of sustainable social surgery.

...

A practical way to serve within the tension of anesthetic and advocate is to experience a small portion of life below the poverty line. The World Bank sets extreme poverty as below $1.50 per day, and I plan to stand in solidarity by attempting to eat on less than $1.50 per day over the course of five days (Monday – Friday).

The Teaching of Empathy

Chalkboard, discpicture / Shutterstock.com
Chalkboard, discpicture / Shutterstock.com

The announcement was broadcast at the end of the day over the school’s public address system.

"Our Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 is ... Mr. Barton. Congratulations!"

I walked out into the third-grade hallway where students were lined up for dismissal. Little hands reached up and patted me on the shoulder. Small voices joined together and called out, "We're proud of you, Mr. Barton!" Alondra, a quiet student, pulled me close and said, "Thank you for being my reading teacher." I was honored and humbled.

As I walked back into my classroom, I reflected over my five years teaching at this Title I elementary school. "Who am I, what have I done, to become Teacher of the Year?" I asked myself.

Roots of the Common Good

LATELY I’VE been on a campaign to read some of the classic novels that I should have read decades ago. This summer it’s been John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. There, I confessed it. All these years I’ve been coasting on repeated viewings of the John Ford film adaptation. But I’m reading the original now. And despite the hunger and hardship faced by the Joad family, I find myself experiencing nostalgia for those old hard times.

Americans fell into the Great Depression of the 1930s without the safety net of unemployment insurance, food stamps, or federally insured bank deposits. In fact, victims of the current depression have those benefits because of the things their ancestors did 80 years ago. Back then, Americans pulled together with the sure belief that we are all responsible for each other and that no one of us can, or should, stand alone. They recognized that a common plight required common action, and they gave us a trade union movement and a New Deal.

In The Grapes of Wrath, that recognition is rooted in the primary value of family solidarity, which grows to include neighbors and co-workers, and, finally, in Tom Joad’s famous speech, extends to all people struggling for justice (“whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat”), and even to all humanity, past and present (“maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of”).

Obviously, that sense of solidarity is hard to find in 21st century America. Today’s Joads, while also motivated by family values, are more likely to blame their problems on big government and to vote for free-market fundamentalists who will cut taxes on the rich.

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Citizens United, Freedom of Speech, and the Liberation of Listening

Listening illustration, Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock.com
Listening illustration, Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock.com

The impact of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) is experienced with increased intensity as we approach Election Day. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to independent political expenditures, certain portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act were reversed.

As a result, the voices surrounding political campaigns have risen in strength and size. And so, while a variety of viewpoints exist on the consequences of Citizens United, most agree that it has dramatically altered the culture of U.S. politics, and has thus sparked major discussion on the reach and limits of freedom of speech. 

Due to the ramifications of Citizens United, we should indeed recognize and critique the role that freedom of speech holds within a mature democracy. However, as we focus on free speech, the time has come to also consider the contributions of its equally important companion, the responsibility to listen. In other words, as we ponder the primary ingredients of a healthy society, the delicate balance between freedom of speech and the responsibility to listen should be held as a critical priority. 

The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: Moral Imagination

Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

The Ghost of Christmas Past showed Scrooge a total of five visions. It is only the last two which are dark. The first three show the seeds of Scrooges own repentance.

The first vision shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas past is that of a young Scrooge reading alone, neglected by his peers, just before Christmas. Scrooge, watching his old self, begins to cry.

“What’s the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should have given him something: that’s all.”

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