What the World Needs Now
We are living in a strange cultural and political time, but the upside is that this time has encouraged many people to think carefully about how societies work. Teetering norms and institutions have led/allowed/forced us to reexamine our politics, our economics, and our social relationships. A few weeks ago, for instance, the Washington Post magazine asked a number of writers and artists about keys to strengthening our democracy.
Lately I’ve been thinking about one crucial but rarely discussed element of a healthy society: empathy.
Empathy, in the words of the always handy Wikipedia, “is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” Empathy is different from sympathy, which simply requires you to feel badly for the other person. Empathy requires understanding not only that other people exist, but that they have feelings, and that those feelings may be different from yours. It may require you to do something, not just feel something. It may require you to examine your own feelings and actions, and maybe even to change your behavior.
Empathy, I worry, is in short supply these days. Americans are sure what they feel, but seem increasingly ignorant and/or dismissive of what others feel. We are right and the other is not just incorrect, but wrong. Concern for others’ feelings is dismissed as “political correctness” or kowtowing to the oppressor. Hurt feelings are the cost of seeking justice or winning the day.
For instance: I believe in marriage equality, and in this scheme, those who don’t are just homophobic troglodytes. I believe in traditional marriage, and those who don’t are actively bent on destroying western civilization. Suppose, however, we get inside the other person and see the world from their angle. Empathy would suggest that one group is seeking support for their most important relationship, while the other wants to protect a family structure under assault from many sides. Empathy might not change our preferred policies, but it might lead us to change the way we argue for them.
Empathy, psychologists and biologists argue, can be learned—and religious traditions can be a key. Meditation can help us get inside the feelings of another person. So can service-learning projects. So, for that matter, can reading fiction. Lincoln in the Bardo, this year’s brilliant if odd Man Booker Prize-winning novel by George Saunders, is a great example. The story narrates the night of the 1862 funeral of Willie Lincoln, the young son of Abraham and Mary. A company of spirits literally inhabit Lincoln, bringing all their joys and sorrows. Saunders shows us how the experience, symbolizing Lincoln’s deep suffering, helped the president develop empathy, making him the compassionate leader the war-torn country needed.
How might our church teach empathy? Who do you see as exemplars of empathy in our community, and how might those lessons be shared? How might empathy change the way we behave in our church, in our homes, or our nation?
EVENTS & ANNOUNCEMENTS
100th Anniversary Kick Off—Our congregational charter is dated November 1917. This Sunday, we’ll kick off a year of 100th Anniversary events with a special service, followed by a Coffee Hour Conversation on the many decades of our church led by our very own historian, Richard Bambach.
Stewardship Campaign—You have received your pledge mailing, and we hope you will make your 2018 pledge by next Sunday, 11/19. As the mailing indicated, our 2018 budget calls for an 8% increase in pledges, primarily due to the ongoing repairs and maintenance of our historic building. To make a pledge, please return your pledge card to the church. You can fulfill it by check or online using the donate button on our website. Please remember to return the pledge card as well so that we can record and include it in our budget. Thank You!
FaithLife—We’ll meet Sunday evening from 5:30-7 pm. Did you ever wonder what Predestination or Total Depravity means? This group is engaged in a stimulating dialogue about Reformation theology and its relevance (or not!) today. Please join us.
Poetry Hour, 11/19—Join us from 4-5 pm in the church parlor and bring one or two poems on any theme to read (with 8 copies to share). Invite a friend! Questions? email@example.com.
Winter Warmth Drive for Friendship Place, 11/19—Begin sorting your gently used winter coats, gloves, scarves, socks, hats, and blankets. We’ll collect them (along with new long underwear, L-XXL sizes preferred) the next two Sundays, 11/19-26.
Advent Retreat, 12/9—Save the Date! We’ll meet from 9:30 am to 1 pm for this annual respite from holiday madness. Join Pastor Ellen for a morning of poetry, prayer, silence and spiritual reflection. RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org.