Michael Gerson

Lincoln also managed to feel empathy for soldiers facing execution for desertion, for his Southern opponents and for families bearing the cost of the Civil War. His letter to Fanny McCullough, who had lost her father in combat, is a model of empathy. "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. ...  You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. ...  The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before."

Empathy is both a private and a public virtue -- the trait of a friend and a leader. The ability to identify with the suffering of others can inspire sacrifice on their behalf. It is a common characteristic, for example, of dissidents, who are offended and angered by unearned suffering around them. Empathy cultivates a commitment to justice.

Public empathy also expands the boundaries of a community. People in grief and need benefit from the assurance that their difficult journey is shared. When the vice president owns to thoughts of suicide at age 30, it means something to the more than 8 million Americans who seriously consider suicide each year and to the more than 1 million who attempt it. Among adults 25 to 34, it is the second-leading cause of death. For the severely depressed, isolation and stigma can be deadly. Joe Biden has diminished both.

Empathy in the absence of judgment can be hazardous. But our public life would benefit from more of each.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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