Gratitude-Empathy Deficiency: Hardened Heart, Sclerotic Mind

DSC_0490My 70th year has been a time of introspection and reflection, of looking back and looking forward. How, I’ve wondered, did I get where I am today, and what should I do today with the lessons learned over an adulthood of parenting, working and community involvement? Most importantly, what kind of world do I want to leave for my daughters, my grandchildren, and the generations that follow?

How did I get where I am today?

It is tempting to say that the personal and vocational successes I’ve enjoyed in my life flowed directly from my hard work and relatively sound mind. But that would be utter hubris.

I did work hard throughout my career, but so do millions of other people who do not share the advantages I have. I do have a good mind, but so do millions of other people who did not have my educational opportunities and are struggling through difficult circumstances.

An honest assessment of how success has come my way is that I was born to middle class, educated parents, and was reared in the secure embrace of encouraging family and friends. I was given—didn’t earn, but was given— every advantage: a home filled with love and books; world travel; a safe and nourishing environment; excellent health and dental care; prep school and college educations; and the confidence that anything I set my sights on could be accomplished.

At almost every step along my path I had a mentor who taught and guided me, from faculty members Eugene Salisbury and Otto Dietrich in high school; Professors Phillip Mangelsdorf and Sherm Miller at the University of Arizona; Captains John Woodall and Arthur Hawkins during my Navy years; Jim Parham, Jack Watson and Bennett Sims in my early career; Joe Heistand, Wes Frensdorf, and Jack Pfister in Phoenix; and friends and colleagues who offered support and kept me accountable at every stop along the way.

What happened to gratitude and empathy?

With notable exceptions, most successful people I’ve met (like me) started ahead of the curve, and many of them truly believe they achieved their status in life solely through their own rugged individual brilliance and hard-core diligence. Delusional hubris propels them through a life too often void of gratitude for the helping hands, or empathy for those who were not born with their advantages.

Gratitude-empathy deficiency is a curable disease that left untreated hardens the heart and mind of the afflicted. One result is the belief that people who do not enjoy the benefits of wealth and power–––often because of the financial, social, and/or racial circumstances of their parents––– have only themselves to blame.

The disease, particularly the lack of empathy, has a corrupting influence on the politics of social policy. It leads to stratified communities in which the only interaction between people who are rich and powerful and those who are poor and powerless is as the served and the server. As a result, resentment and distrust multiply like a communicable disease.

But a cure is possible. Mine came as a result of working in the social justice arenas of government, politics and Christian ministry. I regularly came face to face with people who struggled every day to obtain things that I took for granted––– a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, reliable transportation, quality education, healthy nutrition and good healthcare. I saw firsthand how hard many of them worked and how desperately they yearned for a better life for their children, but they had neither the means nor the contacts to help them achieve it.

I also learned that a strong government safety net is crucial, but is only a piece of the solution. The other piece is held by those of us who do have voice and access to power. We must stand tall and speak clearly: hunger, unequal education, violent neighborhoods, lack of mobility, gross financial inequality, racial and gender discrimination, limited access to health care, and the general oppression of poverty are unacceptable ingredients in the societal fabric of this nation.

We need to rethink our theories of social and economic justice and work to ensure that the educational opportunities for children born to economically poor parents are equal to those children who are born into wealth.

And this leads to the last question in my first paragraph: What kind of world do I hope to leave to my daughters and my grandchildren? It is a question that reaches beyond the confines of our communities and our nation and I will offer my views in a later post.