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The Other Man’s Shoes

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In church’s everywhere we have entered the season of Advent.  This is the four weeks before Christmas in which we prepare for the coming of our Savior.  In many churches the season is celebrated by lighting successive candles on a wreath each Sunday – candles for Hope, Love, Joy and Peace – all things that Christ brings in His coming.  This is good stuff and they are all things we desire.  I love the tradition.

But Hope, Love, Joy and Peace are also amorphous, fuzzy things.  You cannot pick them up; you cannot carry them around.  You can practice them, but they are so overarching that to try and practice one in one area of your life often means failing in another.  Trying to be joyful while fighting a mall crowd often results in biting your spouse’s head off when you get home – that sort of thing.

So, this advent I am looking for things I can practice, and that I think the nation needs to practice, that are a bit more achievable within the context of the season.  Things that the Christmas story teaches us.  The first such thing that comes to my mind in that stream of though is empathy.

There is no more empathetic act in human history than the birth of Jesus Christ – the Incarnation – God become man.  In an effort to love us fully God became one of us.  No, I can’t really get my head around that (something we’ll talk more about in another Advent reflection) but I can understand that such is the ultimate empathetic act.  It is God trying to feel everything we feel, think everything we think, have to do everything we have to do, struggle with everything we struggle with.  That’s empathy – putting yourself in the other man’s shoes.

Further, in the case of the Incarnation, it is the most thoroughgoing empathy ever.  As Jesus, God did not just have a taste of what we are like – it was not a day or two, it was a lifetime – a lifetime that culminated, like all lives do, in death.  The eternal (God) so desired to know what it is like to be human, that He sacrificed even His eternal nature.  That’s about as complete as empathy can get.

How far has our world strayed from such empathy?  We live in a nation divided, and a nation where our divisions are more pronounced than anytime since the Civil War.  Our divisions threaten the functioning of our government.  Aided by social media, we live in bubbles, isolated from anything we do not like or understand.  Bubbles are the opposite of empathy – rather than trying to understand how the other guy feels and thinks, we simply isolate ourselves from the other guy.

No bubble in our nation is more pronounce than the one that surrounds Washington, D.C. and its suburban environs.  Our elected officials usually try, but often fail, to be empathetic.  This is evidenced by our current president who is, if nothing else, quite unconventional.  He was elected precisely because people outside the DC bubble thought he understood them, they thought he had empathy for them  and in many situations he does.  As one example, his impatience with the arcane minutiae of our legislative process is shared by most people outside the DC bubble.  Nonetheless, our elected officials try as best they can for empathy.  Many things, like the legislative process, the demands of travel, the size of districts necessitating staff between them and people, makes the empathy they achieve far  less than the standard set by the Incarnation, nevertheless, they try.

But regulators, the thousands of worker drones that surround the hallowed environs of the Capital and the White House, have no mechanism which even allows them to attempt empathy.  If you work with them, as I do, the bubble is so evident and often so impenetrable that it can take your breath away.  The absence of empathy I have experienced in meetings with bureaucrats is nothing less than stunning.  We have all been in such situations – the DMV clerk that cares not about the hours you have been waiting.

As a single example, consider the Superfund site.  These are places in our nation judged by the EPA to be so contaminated with pollution that they cannot be allowed to sit unaddressed until someone steps up to deal with it.  The Superfund is a fund provided by the government to clean up such sites, removing the adjudged harm to human health and the environment, and settling the question of financial responsibility later.  Yet there are sites on the Superfund lists that have sat idle for decades.  If the sites are as harmful as the EPA asserts they are to get them on the list to begin with, then in such inaction there is a complete lack of empathy for the thousands of lives endangered by the site.  So consumed are the bureaucrats in their bureaucratic process, thus the lack of empathy, that they forget the reason the bureaucracy exists to begin with.  If you want to see the bureaucratic absence of empathy in complete action, read Jim Geraghty’s supposedly comic tale of a fictitious federal agency, “The Weed Agency” – the comedy will escape you if you read the tale with an eye for empathy, trying to be empathetic to those the agency is supposed to serve.

Returning to where we started – the birth of Christ is coming, thus we are in the season of Advent.  The birth of Jesus is the most empathetic act in human history.  This advent I will seek to practice empathy, and I pray that our government can learn at least this lesson of the season.

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