Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as “the experiencing as one’s own of the feelings of another; also: the capacity for this.” Merriam-Webster defines sympathy as “an expression of sorrow for another’s loss, grief or misfortune.” There is a difference between empathy and sympathy, and that difference may help us understand the difference between liberals and conservatives.
In the hours following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, parents all over America were frozen to their televisions or computers, grief pouring out of our souls. How, why, what, how can we help, what can we do? Some of us helped our local schools create cards to send to Newtown, others volunteered, we prayed and cried and hugged our kids so tightly. Empathy coursed through our veins; we were joined in our common sorrow and outrage.
Many conservatives had a different response to that horrible day. Yes, it was a tragedy, however, while they mourned the deaths of twenty-six people including kids who didn’t have all their adult teeth, they didn’t feel what Newtown was feeling. They didn’t feel what the majority of Americans were feeling. Interestingly, that massacre did move a few Blue Dog Democrats to propose less-than-comprehensive gun reform, but for the most part, the silence was deafening. Until Wayne LaPierre stepped onto a stage one week later.
Wayne LaPierre did his job perfectly. He blamed everything under the sun except the one thing that allowed the murderer of those twenty-six people to do what he did. He feigned grief, shaking his head while looking sorrowful. But in the end, Wayne LaPierre did what he always does when guns kill people: he catered to his clients (gun manufacturers and retailers) and ignored the dead.
Having a total lack of empathy for the poor in America is Stuart Varney’s bread and butter. Varney, a Fox “Business” host with an approximate net worth of $10 million, claims to have sympathy for the poor while expounding on his belief that they’re not actually poor. I discovered Stuart Varney when I watched a segment of his program. He had Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation as his guest, and the two of them chatted about how poor people have refrigerators and phones, therefore, they are not poor. And Mr. Rector, while slamming a statistic that claims 12% of American children may be going to bed hungry (he believes it’s only 2%), said he has “sympathy” for people who are actually poor.
By the way, according to the website ChildStats.gov, there were 73.7 million children in American in 2012, which means that 1.474 million of them (by his estimate) were going to bed hungry every night. According to Stuart Varney and Robert Rector, that’s okay because they have a television.
Of course, we also have politicians with sympathy. Richard Mourdock believes being raped is horrible, but if you get pregnant, it’s a “gift from God.” Paul Ryan has sympathy for the elderly, the handicapped and the poor, he really just thinks giving you things like Medicaid and Social Security will encourage you to lounge around in a hammock. Louie Gohmert got into politics in the first place because as a judge, he saw so many single moms commit welfare fraud, he just had to stop it by running for Congress. Gohmert has sympathy for the kids born to “deadbeat dads” and single moms with “15 kids,” just not enough to feed them.
There is a time for real sympathy. Trying to distract someone from a problem, cheering them up with humor, or taking them away from the issue for a bit is sometimes a great idea. What conservatives practice is not real sympathy. There is no mercy, no goodwill – only condescension, anger and blame. And there’s certainly no empathy. Often, expressing sympathy begins with “At least.” You’re poor? Well, at least you have a microwave says Stuart Varney. You were raped and might be pregnant? Well, at least you got that gift from God states Richard Mourdock. Your kids are hungry? Well, at least it’s only 2% lies Robert Rector.
Again, there’s a time for both sympathy and empathy. In each, we must show true compassion, true understanding and gentleness. A rape victim doesn’t need Todd Akin wondering if her rape was legitimate. A single mom doesn’t need Mitt Romney blaming her for gun violence. A hungry kid doesn’t care if it’s 14 million or 1.474 million; he just knows he hasn’t eaten all day and it’s hard to concentrate.
Empathy is hard. It forces us to see through another person’s eyes for just a moment. But in doing so, we may be able to see past the pain and into a not-so-distant future where understanding and love are more common than derision and hate. We need truth in media, truth in politics and truth in our own lives. People like Stuart Varney and Wayne LaPierre and Louie Gohmert and Paul Ryan must be told, as loudly and as often as possible, that in our country, we don’t turn our backs on people who are in trouble, we reach out and help. We are the United States of America after all.