Earlier this month, I couldn’t help but notice the number of trucks that passed by transporting riding lawnmowers. There were dozens of them, each one with two or three mowers, all heading out to spend a half hour or, in the case of larger yards, much longer, in the sweltering heat. Call me selfish, but one of my passing thoughts was, “I’m glad I don’t have to work in this heat.” Another thought was to wonder why those of us fortunate enough not to have to do manual labor don’t have more empathy for those who do.
The American economy inadequately rewards those who do hard physical, often debilitating work. Those of us who “labored” in offices for years in some ways, don’t know what work is. I recall an incident many years ago where my son was with me at work. He watched me talking on the phone and banging away at a computer keyboard and asked, “Daddy, is this what you do all day? Why don’t you have to work?”
I have no apologies for my career as a white-collar worker, but my son had a point. Today, retired from full-time work, I am young compared to many other people my age who “worked for a living.” I think those people deserve our empathy. Unfortunately, all too often they don’t get it. And that absence of empathy is reflected in today’s political divide and an economy where the rich are getting richer at the expense of people who do much of the work that makes our standard of living possible.
American politics would smell better if some of the class-based acrimonies were replaced with empathy. If that happened, a high priority might be placed on addressing income inequality. Efforts to call things like affirmative action “reverse racism” might be viewed differently. If you recognize income inequality and classism, which might be described as denigration of those who don’t have as much money or education as you do, you want to address income inequality as fast as possible. You quit seeing it as “sour grapes” on the part of those struggling to make ends meet and start seeing income inequality as a moral issue.
Empathy is not the product of reading economic treatises, at least for most of us. Instead, it only appears in a genuine form as a result of beliefs. If you believe all humans are created equal, you should be empathetic to others, including people who don’t look like you, immigrants (legal and illegal), people with disabilities, and people who are just different than you are in terms of gender, sex, and self-identification.
Churches, schools, politicians, and other moral leaders should try to wake up “the empathy gene” in all of us. Our consciousness of the importance of empathy must be raised. And dare I say, all of us should be taught to expect empathy from others.
While empathy is a moral imperative, it also is a prerequisite for a democratic society. Without empathy, politics can become a grab bag, with all of us trying to use the political system to maximize our own benefits at the expense of others. It is the national deficit in empathy that, in my view, might have brought us to where we are today in politics: A world of identity politics (race vs. race, class vs. class, etc.) and incredible callousness to others (For example, Texas Governor Abbott putting barriers in the Rio Grande River that can result in illegal immigrants drowning.)
As I look at the troubling future of the 2024 Congressional and Presidential elections, I want to support candidates who display a modicum of empathy. That rules out greed-obsessed Trump and those who imitate him. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that all Democrats are good, and Republicans are bad. Legislators and leaders in both parties have work to do.
Has anyone developed an “empathy index” that might be used to help us determine whether we are empathetic? I haven’t seen one, but I have seen websites intended to help us understand what empathy is. Some attributes of empathy which we can all adopt include being a good listener, thinking about what others feel, understanding other points of view, and showing compassion. That’s a good start.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.