Seeking Human Kindness
Empathy lies at the heart of the Christian moral life and I am convinced that it should motivate our political convictions and commitments as well. When we closely examine the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth through the sacred scriptures, we encounter a variety of examples of the Son of God entering into the experiences of others, listening to their stories, and taking on their sufferings as his own. This is the ideal of public service. After all, Jesus was – and is – the model public servant.
But empathy poses a significant challenge to those who practice it, which is what makes this virtue so difficult to acquire. The virtue of empathy entails personal transformation, which requires social obligation. It is difficult to be sensitive to the experiences of those around us, to admit that we are all too often wrong about an opinion that we hold to be true, to be transformed by a new perspective that is different from our own, and to take on new practices that shift how we interact with others.
There is a man in Washington, D.C. who can usually be found near Dupont Circle holding a cardboard sign that simply reads: “Seeking human kindness.” In a world that is connected now more than ever through social media, we seem to be increasingly unaware of the needs of those right in front of us. How is our practice of empathy impacted when our ears are plugged by earbuds and our eyes are fixed to the screens of our iPhones? I wonder how many people actually take the time to read his sign. I wonder how many people look him in the eye and greet him with a simple hello as they pass by. And how many dare to ask him, “How are you?” It is important to have mercy on the overseas refugee, but what about the neighbor who is merely seeking the act of human kindness?
As we gear up for another election cycle, with a lot of conviction swirling around, I am reminded of the quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”