Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

David Stokes
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Posted: May 31, 2009 12:01 AM

Empathy is all the rage these days. It’s the hot new word that some would like to become the transcendent Zeitgeist. It’s all about being inside the skin of others, feeling their pain, and rendering judgment accordingly. The nation is a big emergency room, people are bleeding, limbs are falling off, as are the wheels of society, this is no time for textbook medicine, no time for looking at the flight instruments – let your gut guide you.

Crash and burn.

Empathy, by definition, can only be felt and expressed by someone with a common life database. It’s very different from sympathy. While some would suggest that the best – and to them, the only – way to really bring about a vision of social justice, is for those making vital decisions and pronouncements to be marinated in empathy, history tells us that great strides have been made without it.

It was just regular old, vanilla, garden-variety, sympathy that worked for Lincoln. He couldn’t empathize with slaves, because he never had to live that way. Sympathy feels for the plight of another, but not necessarily by having “been there.”

As a minister, for years I could sympathize and show compassion to congregants who had lost a parent, but until I lost my mother in 2002, I really couldn’t empathize. Before her death, I could say, “I am so sorry for your loss. I want to do my best to provide comfort to you.” Since her passing it is now, “I am so sorry for your loss. I know exactly how you feel. I lost my mom a few years ago and it still hurts.”

So, should I limit my ministry expressions to cases where I actually understand stuff because I have gone through it? When I minister to someone who has experienced pain I have not known, am I somehow ill equipped?

Better – should I be in my job only because I have had the requisite experiences that make me empathetic to wide-variety of individuals? Or is it OK to reach out, even if it is just plain old empathy-deficient and second-rate sympathy that I can offer?

To make empathy the litmus test – and that is what is happening right now, it trumps everything – is to render all else not nearly as important. Empathy is by definition a narrow focus and there is no guarantee that decisions guided predominately by it are right. What happens, for example, when the cries of those one empathizes with because of certain commonalities clash with the rights of those who don’t elicit or even deserve empathy?

What we have here is a prescription for a trend in the legal system of our nation to gain virtually unstoppable momentum en route to becoming the new national orthodoxy. It has all been talked about before – a long time ago. Many now look back on the days of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s government-by-experimentation as a golden example of what should be done now. He talked much about the Constitution of the United States being a “living” document.

That’s code. In my world – that of theology and scripture – the same thing has been used for a long time to suggest that you can’t really take a lot of the Bible literally, that it is always subject to interpretation in light of the times. But understanding historical context, intent of authors, etc., is vital.

To find out what something means, first figure out what it meant.

When you find out what something meant, and, well, the nation doesn’t like what it means today, there is one remedy – change the Constitution via amendment. This is a process designed to be ugly, messy, political, and deliberately slow – with millions of minds working on it - not just nine. To short cut that pathway is not empathy, or even sympathy; it’s pathetic.

When you go back and read the Federalist Papers, Common Sense, and other materials from our foundational era, you get the sense that those guys would have a hard time making it to the political big-time now. You see, they would probably begin a spoken thought with: “Here’s what I think” - or, “I think this.” Eyes would incessantly roll to that in our day when everyone knows you start such a sentence with: “Here’s what I feel.”

It’s about feelings, nothing more than feelings.

Speaking of that cool New Deal period, in many ways there is another ghost haunting the White House these days, beyond that of Mr. Roosevelt (who also couldn’t really empathize with the poor, but alas, he did sympathize). The spirit of “Friendly” Henry A. Wallace seems to be alive and well - too bad for America.

Wallace was Roosevelt’s second vice president, serving from 1941 to 1945, and every American should be thankful that our 32nd chief executive dumped him in favor of Harry Truman for the 1944 election. Henry was one strange guy, and had he been VP when FDR died, we would have had a real lunatic-in-chief running the store.

Try to imagine a combination of Joe Biden, Deepak Chopra, Jerry Brown, with a dash of Ralph Nader.

In 1936, while Mr. Roosevelt was running for reelection and contemplating his first new term action – to change/pack the Supreme Court – Wallace was his Secretary of Agriculture. Henry wrote a book that year about the constitution, and it was reviewed in the July 4, 1936 issue of Newsweek, with a picture of him on the cover, and the words: “Secretary Wallace Warns the Court.”

The article is very revealing and has a ripped-from-today’s-headlines feel. Frankly Mr. Wallace was all about the empathy. Among the things the article about the-man-who-could-have-been-president said were that he insisted, “It (the court) can, by relying on one set of precedents rather than another, shut its eyes to fundamental economic and social trends. It can do this, but it will be at the cost of the faith of the people and ultimately at the cost, I fear, of the court itself.”

Wallace clearly, according to the Newsweek story, believed that “a broadly interpreted Constitution” would yield “ample room for the still-distant development” of what he loved to refer to as his “cooperative society.” His vision was for “a national commonwealth rid of competition and based on cooperative production, marketing, and consumption.”

In other words, the guy was all about an empathetic interpretation of the Constitution.

Poor Henry Wallace. He was born out of due time. Like Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas (grandfather of current Newsweek man Evan Thomas, of the now infamous “We’re All Socialists Now” cover), the dreamer who served as Vice President of the United States for four years never lived to see his fantasies go mainstream. He’d sure be having fun today.

Wallace was dumped, largely because some strange and embarrassing letters were floating around – stuff he had written to a guy named Nicholas Constantin Roerich, a self-styled Russian mystic. The correspondence was sappy and scary with thoughts like:

“My Dear Guru: The search, whether it be for the lost world of Masonry or the Holy Chalice or the potentialities or the age to come is the one supremely worthwhile in objective. All else is Karmic duty. Here is life.”

It took me a few readings of that to figure out what the guy meant, but I finally deciphered it. He was simply saying:

“It’s the empathy, stupid.”