for a vast future also

Last spring, there were reports of Mitt Romney bullying another boy in grade school. Charles Blow’s NY Times op-ed helped me think about it then. Today, as it seems every bump in this eighteen-month presidential campaign (from the dog on the roof to the empty chair) is being compiled and re-run, I find this story curiously absent. I wonder what it means for our times, and our election today. It seems pretty important to me.

After the story broke, Romney apologized, after a fashion:

Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.

And Blow cries foul:

If someone was hurt or offended, “I apologize” isn’t a real apology. Even if no one felt hurt or offended, if you feel that you have done something wrong, you can apologize on that basis alone. Remorse is a sufficient motivator. Absolution is a sufficient objective. Whether the person who was wronged requests it is separate.

Blow calls Romney out for the insufficiency of a hands-in-the-air “no harm, no foul” approach. He fumbled “an amazing teaching moment about the impact of bullying,” and thereby failed to show leadership. True enough, maybe.

But for me the issue turns on that little word “obviously.” I think it reveals contempt for the person who was wronged. It says more about the speaker than it does about the hearer: that s/he is saddened by suffering because any decent person would be, and of course s/he are one of those (decent people). “Obviously” trails a tacit “but,” in the clause of the sentence that’s rarely said (until the “apologizer” gets angry that what he’s proffering hasn’t been accepted).

I’ve mentioned elsewhere the bullying reported by Dan Savage’s husband Terry in their “It Gets Better” video (the one that started a national movement). The “but” is silent, and especially searing:

My parents went in once to talk to the school administrators about the harassment I was getting in school, and they basically said, “if you look that way, walk that way, talk that way, act that way, then there’s nothing we can do to help your son.”

Once your ear gets tuned to it, you can hear the “but” all over the place. It’s in the defense proffered by the Birmingham clergymen who decried the unwelcome presence of the “outside agitators” like Dr. King who were upsetting their congregation’s apple carts, and called for “the principles of law and order and common sense” to prevail. I’ve used it myself: as a freshman in 1987, I was told I was required to attend an LGBT sensitivity session with the rest of my hall. I took my RA aside after and told him that I would not be attending, since I was at the time an active member of a faith community that found homosexuality sinful. “Obviously,” I felt that no one should be subject to violence or discrimination (I was a good and decent person, after all) – “but” I had another, higher allegiance, don’t you see: one that certainly opted me out of being made uncomfortable by hearing stories of difference from the people whose lives I’d be sharing for the next years.

In hindsight I can see that sexual difference was deeply unsettling to me, a small glimpse of how unsettled that tradition left me generally. My RA, to his great credit, informed me that my discomfort was sort of the point: that my obligations as a “good person” in fact extended beyond me, and that my membership in the larger human community implied allegiances that might need to transcend my faith. He didn’t say that I needed to change my mind or my heart, but he did say that I needed to understand how life felt in another’s shoes. The conversation got intense – quite, considering I had been at college one week and we barely knew each other. I think I finally mumbled something about agreeing to disagree.

I share my story because it’s personal and uncomfortable (that’s why stories teach, BTW – and precisely why they belong in teaching, especially the teaching of teachers and other caring professionals). I think it illuminates the difference between “sympathy” and empathy,” to start – a difference made and articulated in medical education (important as it is to training up compassionate doctors):

In social psychology, both empathy and sympathy can lead to a similar outcome (e.g., prosocial behavior), albeit for different behavioral motivations. For example, a prosocial behavior that is induced by empathic understanding is more likely to be elicited by a sense of altruism. A prosocial behavior that is prompted by sympathetic feelings, however, is more likely to be triggered by egoistic motivation to reduce personal distress…

This is stunning insight: it helps us see the difference between attending another’s suffering because not to would mean you were a bad person, and attending another’s suffering because you wish to live in a world where we care about other’s suffering. Sympathy, then, is a defensive, frightened, isolating experience. Empathy is an opening, peaceful, connecting experience: a glimpsing of the interdependence of you and me that Karen Armstrong states lies at the heart of all world religions, succinctly expressed in the universal dictum not to do to another that which would be painful to yourself. The first is base, the second transcendent. The first has a “but” (I’d do more, but I am not like you), while the second has an “and” (I am like you, and will strive to regard you as I myself would be regarded).

I’m not blogging for or against a candidate – it’s not my place, not here. Who can really say how revealing a youth’s actions are of his adult heart (mine has certainly been changed since my freshman year); besides, I am in the business of believing that education changes hearts and minds. But I began this post months ago, and was drawn back to it on Election Day as I reflect on where our nation might be headed tonight: what it might mean for policy deadlock and civil rights, for our nation’s role in the world. Not militarily or educationally but morally, as a nation whose system was forged to allow compassion as compromise, empathy as coming to understand the others’ perspective and needs and working to accede to it as one can. If we have a destiny in this interconnected world, I would hope it would be as an example of how thoroughly we embrace the possibility of compromise – compromise born of empathy for the other.

Last month I went with my family to Washington D.C. and saw the monuments, stood in the temples of universal suffrage and enlightenment that we rally around: the Lincoln Memorial, The Library of Congress. I heard how in 1861, Lincoln noted that the struggle engulfing his nation “is not altogether for today–it is for a vast future also.” I feel the same resonance today, in the hope that whatever might come of our struggle today will foremost be a call for coming together despite our discomforts, for embracing empathy rather than sympathy for all those who constitute our People. And whatever the outcome, I hope for a future of commitment to compromise that hurts sometimes: compromise that makes both sides uncomfortable in the name of seeing the world from another’s shoes, and reaching out to meet another’s needs. Perhaps starry-eyed to wish for, but I am a patriot, and believe we can do better.

Obviously. May we.

Image from Wikipedia.
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