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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

Like So Many Gnats...

The world today is an increasingly hostile, me-first place. One key reason? We suppress our empathy.

Not a choice

What is empathy? Long story simplified, empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else feels in their situation.

Watching an athlete suffer a serious leg injury in slow-motion causes us to cringe because we can imagine how it feels. We might even have had the same injury, but even if we didn't, we still feel the bones, ligaments, tendons, etc. tearing loose from their moorings and sending the player into agony.

Empathy was once a trait to be cultivated and the presence of it was considered a virtue. The ability to put oneself into another's shoes, or see the world through their eyes was a superpower for some, much sought-after by others.

Empathy matters. The most functional reason is that empathy - which is a feeling, often produces compassion - which is a range of actions. Whereas empathy is on the outs, compassion is under full-blown attack. Such is the broken world.

In the U.S. today, empathy and compassion have become political terms. They are often synonymous with weakness, or naïveté, or gullibility. The inference is that people who feel empathy and act with compassion are somehow being swindled by those 'dishonest' Guatemalan refugees, sexual assault victims, and homeless people.

Alternatively, our suppressed empathy, allows us to dismiss them as foreign mooches, scorned women, and lazy people who can't be bothered working or having a home, and who prefer to live in the streets.

We were all taught empathy at an early age. Or maybe it's a natural instinct or hereditary trait. Whatever its origins, it's based in our ability to use our imagination. And to use our common sense. For example, if one truly imagines the way a parent in a lawless place like some parts of Guatemala might feel, it changes the response and our thoughts toward immigration. When you draw these desperate people as one-dimensional mooches, it's easy to dehumanize them, minimize their plight and shoo them away like so many gnats on a summer evening.

Instead, imagine loving parents sending their children alone on a 600 mile hike for the possibility (no guarantee) of a better life in a more stable land. Notice, they don't flock to Nicaragua, El Salvador or even Mexico, all much closer. They continue on to the U.S.

Another example, a woman is sexually assaulted. The alleged perpetrator is her boss or some other work colleague. She reports the incident and while some may believe her, others do not. They tend to be allies of the attacker, or they are concerned about their own legal exposure, but instead of addressing the whole incident, they do one or several of the following:

  • Question the circumstances of the incident - maybe it was consensual?

  • Question the alleged victim's performance of her work - maybe she was trying to keep her job and things got out of hand?

  • Search for anyone in the office who may ever have witnessed the victim being friendly toward the alleged attacker and get them to tell their story

  • Bring up unrelated behavior, including sexual behavior, that may have taken place between the alleged victim and others in the workplace.

  • Investigate, offer a financial settlement, and require a non-disclosure agreement as a condition of accepting the settlement.

Is it possible for someone to concoct a story of sexual assault, with the ultimate goal of a financial settlement? Sure. It's happened.

But realize that the other steps - or even all of them - will be taken first. The accuser will pay a price in reputation, at a minimum. And there will be an extended period of time as settlements are not guaranteed, though dismissal for cause and other legally questionable actions can happen to them much more quickly. There is considerable risk and the possibility of zero reward.

But what if you were that woman and it wasn't your goal. What if you're telling the truth?

Why is our kneejerk response to believe an accuser is a conniving gold digger? Why can't we imagine she is telling the truth and investigate from there? Because when you draw these desperate people this way, it's easy to dehumanize them, minimize their plight and shoo them away like so many gnats on the aforementioned summer evening.

Homelessness is a big problem, particularly in larger cities, but it's an issue in many other places as well. The reasons are many, as many as there may be people living on the streets. From bad luck to mental illness to financial mishap to substance abuse and more, people find themselves unable to procure permanent residence.

They are on the streets and we may walk by them every day as we go about our business. We are uncomfortable, whether they are panhandling, squeegeeing windshields, simply sitting on a bench or curbstone or on the ground.

When we are uncomfortable, as we are with the homeless, we seek a cause. And when we find a cause, it makes us more comfortable. Because we don't want to engage a homeless person, we make excuses and invent stories that justify our desire to avoid them.

Think though, of the person - the homeless person sitting there. Do you think they are there because they want to be? Do you think they are asking you for change because it's fun for them? Do you think being hungry and dirty and sometimes endangered is a lifestyle choice?

BUT - if you are able to convince yourself that they are making a choice and/or that they are alcoholics, drug abusers, or criminals who deserve to live on the street, and don't deserve shelter, safety and comfort or simply that their situation stinks but it's THEIR FAULT? Then it becomes easy to dehumanize them, minimize their plight and shoo them away like so many gnats on that increasingly familiar summer evening.

The Bible suggests no rights for gnats. But it is remarkably consistent, especially in the Gospels, where Jesus speaks directly to us, that people - all people - should be treated with compassion. And to treat anyone with compassion, we must have empathy to recognize and understand another person's plight.

Our job is not to judge. That's for God to do. And He will.

Our job is to love others, which, at a bare minimum, means not dehumanizing them and minimizing their plight so as to shoo them away like so many gnats on a summer evening.

Thank you for reading. Check out my book, which is available at the link below, as well as Kindle Unlimited. If you are seeking a new or improving relationship with God, this may be a great first step!



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