Wednesday, October 12, 2011

“Our Most Redeeming And Humane Quality”

I find it puzzling that people frequently want to quibble about the value of “empathy,” especially, it seems, when conservatives, whose linguists have not yet been able to put an Orwellian-like spin on the term, try to confuse moderates such as me much as they did not long ago with the term “compassionate.”

Over the last twelve days, I’ve read and re-read a New York Times op-ed trying to learn why it seemed the author, whom I greatly admire and read regularly, was trying so hard to dismiss the term “empathy.” I even waded again through the paper by Dr. Jesse Prinz, whom I once heard lecture in Durham when he came up from Chapel Hill to speak here at the National Humanities Center.

According to Prinz, the term “empathy” has only been in use for the last 100 years or so which is probably why so many wanted to quibble when historian Dr. Doris Kearns Goodwin listed it as one of emotional strengths of President Abraham Lincoln in a paper titled The True Lincoln.

The paper was published a few months prior to her book Team of Rivals which is currently being made into a movie by Stephen Spielberg but not for release until after next year’s Presidential election. So much for so-called liberal conspiracies!

Dr. Goodwin cites as just one indication of Lincoln’s “empathy” by citing words from his second Inaugural speech where he empathizes with Southerners during the American Civil War and she says where he notes that “the sin of slavery is shared by North and South… Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other…let us judge not that we be not judged.”

Can you ever imagine such words coming from the mouths of those have overtaken Lincoln’s party today, even just out of respect for President Barak Obama to whom Lincoln means so much?

Other emotional strengths of Lincoln that are pointed out in Goodwin’s article (give the link time to open)include: “humor,” “magnanimity,” “generosity of spirit,” “perspective,” “self-control,” “sense of balance,” and “social conscience,” all in short supply among many politicians today, especially on the Right.

In her incredible and humorous new book Being Wrong – Adventures In The Margin of Error, Kathryn Schultz writes that “imagination” which is “what enables us to conceive of and enjoy stories other than our own,” and “empathy” which is “the act of taking other people’s stories seriously” are “our most redeeming and humane qualities.”

“Certainty deadens and destroys both qualities,” Schultz continues, “when we are caught up in our own convictions, other people’s stories – which is to say, other people – cease to matter to us. This happens on the scale of history…but it also happens to each of us as individuals.”

No one felt stronger than Lincoln about the importance of keeping the word “united” in United States of America, but he was able to prevent that certainty from being what Schultz terms “toxic to a shift in a perspective.”

And to me the ability to shift perspective is what makes “empathy” so powerful and so essential to a “code you can live by,” regardless of worldview or ideology.

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