Empathy for the Detestable, Compassion for the Callous

Empathy for the Detestable, Compassion for the Callous


Most deeply spiritual people, regardless of their ancestral religion or their chosen path, esteem human beings who exhibit certain qualities, such as empathy, compassion, lovingkindness, humility and generosity of spirit. We especially covet those traits in people who occupy positions of power and leadership. And in this overheated American election season, it is no secret that one of the candidates appears to lack those cherished attributes, which is why—with rare exceptions—every spiritual leader, teacher, practitioner or aspirant I’m aware of is opposed to, and alarmed by, Donald Trump.

You do not have to be a liberal, a leftist, a Hillaryite or a Democrat to be spiritually appalled by nasty rhetoric about religious and ethnic groups, mockery of the disabled, and schoolyard insults hurled at political opponents. A great many lifelong Republicans are so offended by the behavior of their standard bearer that they have publicly renounced him. We are dealing not just with politics, but with spiritual and moral issues.

I suspect most readers of Spirituality & Health agree. So here is a question we all need to contemplate: To the extent that each of us has the same qualities we wish to see in our leaders—empathy, compassion, lovingkindness, humility, generosity of spirit—can we offer them to the ardent supporters whose votes created the situation we find ourselves in?

Forget about Citizen Trump himself for a moment. Perhaps you feel he deserves whatever comes his way, and that every calumny thrown at him is a karmic IOU for his own unseemly acts, and that he is more than fair game when the nation's dignity is at stake. Fine. Carry on. But what about his ordinary supporters? What about the invective-hurling, check-writing, sign-carrying minions in the "Make America Great Again" caps? Can you muster any empathy and compassion for them?

I raise the question because I have seen far too many people speak of Trumpsters with the kind of contempt, condescension, sarcasm and snide slurs they would never tolerate if aimed at a religious or ethnic minority. Let's face it, it's one thing to empathize with the chronically downtrodden and the historically oppressed, or to feel compassion for innocents who suffer visibly and for groups burdened by crushing physical, social or political disadvantages. It's quite another to conjure sympathetic understanding for people whose outer behavior seems to be dominated by hate, bigotry, ethnocentrism and irrational blame.

That is hard indeed. For all my decades of spiritual practice and all my attempts to live up to Golden Rule-like standards, I have found it exceedingly difficult, in this wintry summer of collective discontent, to summon compassion and consideration for those who seem to lack those very qualities with regard to people unlike themselves. One of the challenges for those with high spiritual standards, then, is: Can we empathize with people who seem to lack empathy? Can we find compassion for the uncompassionate? Can we resist contempt for the contemptuous? Can we not hate haters? Can we overcome our prejudice toward the prejudiced?

Just because they are predominately white, Christian and male doesn't mean that the bulk of Trump supporters are undeserving of compassion. Can we look past those markers of privilege long enough to recognize—and empathize with—their fears and anxieties? Their feelings of humiliation, helplessness and desperation? Their bewildered sense of displacement from a complex, ever-shifting world they can't keep up with and barely recognize? Can we denounce their hatred and repudiate their fact-deprived opinions and yet appreciate the overwhelming social forces that shaped their attitudes? If we can do it for criminals from deprived backgrounds, or terrorists brainwashed since childhood, why not fellow Americans shaped by powerful social forces to view immigrants, Muslims, liberals and "elitists" as a threat? They are hurting, after all. They are in pain. They feel disrespected. They are afraid.

It should go without saying that I am not calling for tolerance of hatred, racism or cruelty. Obviously, such behavior needs to be denounced unequivocally. And I not advocating empathy and compassion just because they make us feel more spiritually advanced. Cultivating those qualities has practical advantages. We can't combat a cancer in the national bloodstream unless we understand its roots, and we can't expect to change the minds and hearts of people if they do not feel understood. The more that enraged people are demeaned, the more their rage feels justified. The more the ignorant are ridiculed, the stronger they cling to their beliefs. The more the ethnocentric are belittled, the more tightly they hug their tribe. And the more likely they are to lash out. Contempt and ridicule may make us feel good, but they add fuel to the flames of resentment, and those flames will not be extinguished on November 9th, no matter how the election turns out.

Empathy is not just a virtue, it's a surgical instrument. Compassion is not just a desirable trait, it's a strategic weapon. At the current moment, those gentle tools may be more effective than the bombshells of hostility and disdain.

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