From Audacity of Hope p66-69 by Barack Obama
“…we long for that most elusive quality in our leaders—the quality of authenticity, of being who you say you are, of possessing a truthfulness that goes beyond words. My friend the last US Senator Paul Simon had that quality. For most of his career, he baffled with pundits by garnering support from people who disagreed, sometimes vigorously, withy his liberal politics. It helped that he looked so trustworthy, like a small town doctor, with his glasses and bow tie and basset-hound face. But people also sensed that he lived out his values; that he was honest, and that he stood up for what he believed in, and perhaps most of all that he cared about them and what they were going through.
That last aspect of Paul’s character–a sense of empathy—is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.
Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother. She disdained any kind of cruelty or thoughtlessness or abuse of power, whether it expresses itself in the form of racial prejudice or bullying in the schoolyard or workers being underpaid. Whenever she saw even a hint of such behavior in me she would look me square in the eyes and ask, “How do you think that would make you feel?”
But it was in the relationship with my grandfather that I think I first internalized the full meaning of empathy. Because my mother’s work took her overseas, I often lived with my grandparents during my high school years, and without a father present in the house, my grandfather bore the brunt of most of my adolescent rebellion. He himself was not always easy to get along with; he was at once warmhearted and quick to anger, and in part his career had not been particularly successful, his feelings could also be easily bruised. By the time I was sixteen we were arguing all of the time, usually about me failing to abide by what I considered to be an endless series of petty and arbitrary rules–filling up the gas tank whenever I borrowed his car, say, or making sure that I rinsed out the milk carton before I put it in the garbage.
With a certain talent for rhetoric, as well as an absolute certainty about the merits of my own views, I found that I could generally win these arguments, in the narrow sense of leaving my grandfather flustered, angry, and sounding unreasonable. But at the same point, perhaps in my senior year, such victories started to feel less satisfying. I started thinking about the struggles and disappointments he had seen in his life. I started to appreciate his need to feel respected in his own home. I realized that abiding by his rules would cost me little, but to him it would mean a lot. I recognized that sometimes he really did have a point, and that in insisting on getting my own way all the time, without regard to his feelings or needs, I was in some way diminishing myself.
There’s nothing extraordinary about such an awakening, of course’ in one form or another it is what we all must go through if we are to grow up. And yet I find myself returning again and again to my mother’s simple principle–” How would that make you feel?”–as a guidepost for my politics.
It’s not a question we ask ourselves enough, I think; as a country we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit. We wouldn’t tolerate schools that don’t teach, that are chronically under funded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It’s hare to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it’s safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm’s way.
I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.
But that does not mean that those who are struggling– are thereby freed from trying to understand the perspectives of those who are better off. Black leaders need to appreciate the legitimate fears that may cause some whites to resist affirmative action. Union representatives can’t afford not to understand the competitive pressures their employers may be under. I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does–it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.
No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.
Of course, in the end a sense of mutual understanding isn’t enough. After all, talk is cheap; like any value, empathy must be acted upon. When I was a community organizer back in the eighties, I would often challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them where they put their time, energy, and money. Those are the true tests of what we value, I’d tell them, regardless of what we like to tell ourselves. If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren’t willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all.
By these standards at least, it sometimes appears that Americans today value nothing so much as being rich, thin, young, famous, safe and entertained. We say we value the legacy we leave the next generation and then saddle that generation with mountains of debt. We say we believe in equal opportunity but then stand idle while millions of American children languish in poverty. We insist that we value family, but then structure our economy and organize our lives so as to ensure that our families get less and less of our time.
And yet a part of us knows better. We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often than we care to remember. What else is there to guide us? Those values are our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people. And although we recognize that they are subject to challenge, can be poked and prodded and debunked and turned inside out by intellectuals and cultural critics, they have proven to be both surprisingly durable and surprisingly constant across classes, and races, and faiths, and generations. We can make claims on their behalf, so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience, so long as we recall that they demand deeds and not just words.
To do otherwise would be to relinquish our best selves.”