By Pam Linn


How empathy might inform the Supremes

Sometimes it’s hard for me to accept the anger expressed by people of faith directed toward those of other faiths, or no faith in particular.

Currently, President Obama, who was elected by millions of Catholic voters, among others, has accepted an invitation to speak at Notre Dame’s graduation. The Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group for Catholic colleges, has circulated an online petition demanding the university withdraw its offer based on Obama’s support for embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights.

Meanwhile, others, presumably of a more secular persuasion, are parsing the President’s remarks about what qualifications he might seek in a Supreme Court nominee. They’ve seized upon the word “empathy” as perhaps indicative of a nominee who might be inclined to “legislate from the bench” rather than adhering to the letter of the Constitution.

Since when did empathy become a loaded word? Obama did mention it many times during the campaign, not in terms of judicial appointments, but as an understanding of the difficulties ordinary Americans face with regard to the economy and health care, two of our most vexing problems.

Empathy, or the ability to share in another’s feelings or emotions, is something espoused by many Christians and followers of other religions. One of my sisters is both Catholic and empathetic; our other sister has never been able to walk in someone else’s shoes. With no understanding of how someone might react to something she says or does, much less what another has said or done, she was given to vindictiveness and has become increasingly reclusive with age and infirmity.

So where does empathy come from and why don’t we of various faiths treasure it more? Some people seem to have it from childhood. At age four, one of my granddaughters would bandage my wounds, stroke my arm and assure me everything would be all right. She would console anyone who was sad, or calm her cousin or brother when they were angry.

For many, empathy is acquired over a lifetime of enduring and observing suffering. And it isn’t limited to members of one religious tradition or another. At the same time, devout congregants of many denominations seem to have hardened their hearts against the suffering of those who don’t share their particular faith.

I observed this as a teenager and quickly branded it hypocrisy, blaming a few cloistered clerics for intolerance. My own dismissive attitude drove me away from my church, which I had loved as a child. Instead it prompted me to study other religions not realizing why the nuns and priests didn’t support my quest. It never occurred to me then that they sought only to protect me from ideas that might lead me astray.

Sixty years later, I’m still reading, not searching for the perfect religion, but finding similarities in various traditions. During times of sadness and stress in my life, I’ve found solace in disparate places. Books by Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, Thich Nhat Hanh (“Living Buddha, Living Christ”) and Deepak Chopra have added to my understanding.

While in many aspects most religious leaders seem to espouse the same principles, usually based on versions of the golden rule, the Buddhists place the strongest emphasis on empathy and compassion. Buddhist teachers say nothing about dogma, the validity of one faith over another. They believe in God but seem to have no need to personalize an image.

The May issue of Shambhala Sun contains more wonderful writing than I can cover here but a profile of Joan Halifax, author of “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death” is enlightening. In celebration of the Sun’s 30th anniversary, the magazine features highlights of conversations with noted writers, artists, political leaders and spiritual teachers: Maya Angelou, Richard Gere, Jerry Brown, Leonard Cohen, among them one of my favorites, Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun.

Chödrön’s little book, “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” 108 short teachings on cultivating fearlessness and compassion, rests beside my bed. Dog-eared and underlined, it sustains me with pithy admonitions to practice, practice, practice; the way to develop patience, compassion and equanimity.

Samples of Chödrön’s wisdom:

“Our suffering remains with us until it teaches us something.

Pain is not punishment; pleasure is not reward.

Patience means allowing things to unfold at their own speed rather than jumping in with your habitual response to either pain or pleasure.

Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.

In practicing meditation, we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal-quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.

The path is not about going to heaven or a place that’s really comfortable. Wanting to find a place where everything’s okay is just what keeps us miserable.

Dharma isn’t a belief; it isn’t dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. It gives us nothing to hold onto at all.

We can begin to open our hearts to others when we have no hope of getting anything back. We just do it for its own sake.”

Now why shouldn’t empathy inform a Supreme Court justice?