Make 2023 a year of empathy

There is a wonderful story explaining the definition of chutzpah, the wonderful Yiddish word that vaguely means impudence or gall. A woman gets on a crowded bus, looks around, then says to a man already seated, « If you had what I had, you’d let me take your place. »

« Of course, » said the man. « Sit down, please. »

There is a pause, then the polite man asks what the woman has. « Chutzpah, » she replies.

If you had what I had. Kidding aside, if I could flood 2023 with one specific quality, it would be empathy – the ability to feel what others have and don’t have, to feel for them and with them, to understand.

I’m a priest, and what three years of ministry has shown me time and time again is the degree of pain and suffering there, and how complex and nuanced the people and the issues really are. Anyone, clergyman or not, who pronounces himself on deep moral questions in absolutes and certainties has obviously never got his hands dirty.

I’m a realist, and I don’t believe leaps of empathy will automatically stop wars, end poverty, and have us all hugging each other in the streets. But I think – I know, actually – that if we can see the world through other people’s eyes, it changes us, changes them, changes everything.

It’s one thing to see the plight of another and have sympathy. It’s another to walk alongside that person and try to share the struggle.

Consider literal life and death issues, such as medical assistance in dying and abortion. Ten years ago, I would state this with unqualified, unqualified confidence – perhaps arrogance is more accurate – from a conservative perspective. But spend time with those who live terrified that tomorrow might be the day they drown in their own bodily fluids, or with pregnant teenagers or single women who can barely cover the rent, then dare to speak with roaring definitions.

Even in times of war, it makes a difference. My Ukrainian-born great-uncle spent four years on the front lines of World War II in the Red Army. One can only imagine what he saw. In Berlin, victory assured, his men bring him a young German prisoner. My uncle knew this man was a Nazi, but he freed him anyway. I was a kid when I heard the story and asked him why he did that. « I had seen enough, » he said.

But what he was really saying, I realized later, was that he had seen through other people’s eyes. Despite his own suffering, despite what this German was able to do, it was time to inject humanity into the least human contexts.

Most of us, thank God, will never be faced with such a decision. And yet, if we analyze our daily lives, we are often faced with all kinds of difficult choices. How do we react to hostility or disappointment? Do we listen to opposing points of view, do we hold back from a dismissive comment, do we connect or reject?

A few moments on Twitter will reveal what is often a complete lack of empathy. What can be (and sometimes is) a warm and inviting place for informed disagreement or for learning and maturing, is rather often a bloodbath of objectification and abuse. I’ve been a victim of this, and while I can handle it, I wonder about people spitting such venom. Hell, that often comes from right-wing Christians — people who were supposed to follow a man who demanded unsullied, endless empathy.

So my wish for the coming year is that we join the community dance, embark on mutual understanding, and develop a new vision that can see deeply into the hearts and lives of others. Can you imagine, for a moment, if physical pain could be felt by a spectator? It would transform the world – and the world certainly needs to be transformed right now.

Good year.

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