(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please click here to listen to the message. Please see below to read it.
Almost exactly two years ago, the late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel spent fifteen minutes at the opening of his show describing the birth of his son Billy. Within minutes of the birth, an observant nurse noticed something was wrong. Billy’s color was not right and he had a noticeable heart murmur. A pediatric cardiologist was called who decided the infant needed immediate open heart surgery.
Fortunately, all went well and Billy survived thanks to the skill of a medical team trained, in part, by funding from the National Institute for Health, or NIH.
Kimmel then noted how six months before, the Trump administration had proposed a six billion dollar cut in funding for the NIH. Congress fortunately rejected that and instead increased NIH funding by 2 billion. Kimmel went on to note that before Obamacare had been passed, children like Billy were often denied health insurance for the rest of their lives because of their pre-existing condition.
Kimmel then broke down, with tears streaming down his face. He said he was fortunate he had both the money and health insurance to make sure his son received life saving treatment. While choking back, he said no parent should ever have to face the prospect of a child born with a defect who cannot be treated due to lack of insurance. “We live in supposedly the greatest country in the world,” he said. “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Kimmel said. “It’s a human life issue.”
Even though Kimmel’s emotional statement was met with scorn by some, video of it went viral. It was watched and liked on various internet sites over 50 million times. It became national news and polls later showed an increase in support for the Affordable Care Act, which was under threat of repeal then and is now once again.
Despite people hearing statistics and intellectual arguments about why universal health insurance is good for society, one tearful father telling the story of almost losing his son was powerfully compelling. Who could not feel for Jimmy Kimmel – not because he’s a celebrity – but because he’s a parent just like millions of others. People listened with their hearts, they identified with Kimmel, they understood his emotions, and for just the fifteen minutes it took to watch and hear him, they felt his pain. Millions of people empathized with him and perhaps came to support Obamacare.
Two years before, the world was hearing news reports about the Syrian Civil War refugee crisis. Over five million Syrians have fled carnage, chemical gas attacks, and widespread hunger in their home country. That number of people has caused a humanitarian crisis. Over 86% of Syrian refugees still live in barely tolerable camps with conditions below the world poverty line. Appeals for international assistance to the refugees has largely gone unmet.
As you listen to what I’ve just said, think for a moment what it means to you that 5 million people suffer in conditions worse than the world’s poorest. For me, when I read or hear such data, I’m of course upset and I feel an intellectual sorrow. But my feelings are mostly in my head.
Now, please take a look at this picture taken in 2015 of the drowned 2 year old boy Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose family had fled Syria by boat, which later capsized off the coast of Turkey. Now, reflect on your feelings about Syrian refugees. Are they different than what you felt before?
This picture, like Jimmy Kimmel’s story, went viral. Over a billion people around the world saw and felt the impact of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. This one tragic image caused a fifteen-fold increase in donations to help the refugees. Governments around the world, including the US, increased their support oft them.
What made the difference? The world became, for just a short time, widely empathetic to the suffering and deaths of refugees. Alan Kurdi became the entire world’s child.
As most of you know, I’ve appealed many times for greater empathy in us and in the world. My message today will not be as much about empathy itself, but how it can be a powerful means to create societal change. Since it is April when many celebrate Easter, my theme this month will focus on “resurrection.” We often think of that word as relating to the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from death to life. It is said to both prove Jesus’ divinity and the existence of God.
Whether or not that understanding of resurrection is true, it’s meaning is far too narrow. Next week, I plan to look at why resurrection – or change – in ourselves is important. In two weeks, on Easter Sunday, I plan to resurrect the Jesus resurrection itself to find new meaning for it that can speak to everybody.
This past January, I talked in a message about a book by Stephen Pinker entitled Enlightenment Now. In it, Pinker describes how people are far too pessimistic about the present. Many people, both conservative and progressive, believe things are worse off today than in the past. While statistics prove that belief to be false for almost everything – poverty rates are way down, average life expectancies are way up, and social justice rights are better than ever, Pinker notes that happiness levels have not increased with ever improving well-being.
Some experts say human happiness has not substantially increased throughout history because people have moved away from close-knit, caring communities. They point out that humans were likely happier when they were hunter-gatherers who lived in small clans of less than twenty people. When humans depended on one another for their survival, when they intimately knew and identified with others in their clan, they had the human connection and mutual concern for one another needed to help everyone feel happy. Many sociologists say communalism makes people happier.
That happens, experts say, because communalism fosters empathy. When we share what we have, when our well-being depends on the well-being of others close to us, studies show we are happier. And, experts say that is because we understand and feel each other’s emotions.
Individualism, which is a hallmark of western society, emphasizes instead the attainment of happiness by focusing on the self – what it wants, needs, deserves and feels. Less attention is placed on the well-being of other people – especially people we don’t know. We can hear about their plight and be sad – like we do about Syrian refugees – but because we are focused on personal happiness, many people simply don’t have the emotional tools to genuinely understand other feelings.
The sad irony is that because of individualism, people are less happy precisely because we, and everyone else, are too focused on their own interests. We don’t think how someone else will feel when we don’t listen, when we judge, verbally attack, or aggressively compete so that we win and they lose.
Even more, we have lost the intuition ancient people had that sensed how each other felt. We often ask others, “How are you?” but that is often a greeting we don’t really intend as a serious question. We also don’t listen to, or feel, the answer given, or sense someone’s underlying mood. Empathy involves sensitivity and intuition just as much as it does listening.
The world can be such a nasty place but even if we don’t participate in such cruelty, I think it is the very rare person who consistently lives, speaks and acts in empathetic ways. Our failure, I believe, prevents us from being as genuinely compassionate as we could be which sadly can make us part of the problem. We want a more equal and just world but we don’t dedicate ourselves to full time empathy.
That reality leads me to believe that the only way humanity will change itself and thereby resurrect a caring, equal, and non-violent society, is if we all begin to build listening and understanding in ourselves, in our children, and in our small groups – churches, schools, workplaces and government councils. It may sound simplistic, but the only cure for racism, greed, discrimination, crime, war, partisan political nastiness, and a general lack of grace or forgiveness, is if everyone fosters within themselves honest empathy. To change society, people must also change.
We can still intellectually agree or disagree with each other, but we must always find HEART agreement with one another. When you hurt, I both understand it and I hurt too. No judgement. No ranking of your hurt as less than mine. No rush to try to solve it, or tell you about my suffering. Instead, to use President Bill Clinton’s famous empathy phrase, I feel your pain.
Last year, this congregation considered the Black Lives Matter issue on a mostly intellectual level. Our opinions, I believe, came mostly from our minds. Me included. But I knew enough to encourage us, on several occasions, to listen to one another’s personal stories and heart reasons why we each believed as we did. Mostly, we stated our opinions but did not reveal our emotions. As a Minister, I often get to hear the heartfelt stories of you. I heard some members, who had a relative or loved one who was or is a police officer, tell me about the fear they have for that loved one’s safety – that they’ll be harmed by someone with a gun or knife. Whether or not Black Lives Matter is anti-police, many people heart feel that it is. That is has little to do with their thoughts and everything to do with their emotions which, to honor their dignity, we should understand.
Some opponents of a banner also shared why they attend GNH. It’s not for social justice activism, but to instead be a part of loving, caring and friendly community. This community makes them feel safe and a part of something that helps them feel connected and worthy. GNH has a strong emotional pull for them. But many of us, me included, didn’t try to hear or understand those feelings.
Others, who were in favor of the banner, told me stories about parents of color they know who fear for their children when they go out into the world. A few members have children or grandchildren of color. These parents worry that some tired, indifferent or angry officer or vigilante citizen will stop, hassle and perhaps harm their child – simply for being black or brown.
Other advocates of the banner talked about their volunteer work with people of color and their poverty, lack of good schools, and scarce opportunities to advance. On a heart level, these members feel the anguish people of color experience. They are emotionally invested in the well being of a marginalized group of fellow humans.
What we had, in this one small community, was a discussion that never seemed to explore the feelings of one another such that we could all empathize with how each other FELT – not THOUGHT.
It’s ony when people feel, not just think, that true change can happen. Oprah Winfrey once said that its not so much what we say that matters, it’s how we make other people feel that is remembered.
Our empathy does not mean we must intellectually agree with others, but it will mean we must understand them. And that (!) can lead us us to think with our minds AND our hearts. That’s the foundation of our spirituality: to view the world with the Unitrian head and the Universalist heart. When we do that, I believe we can so love one another that we seek win-win solutions – compromises – that joyfully address the feelings and thoughts of all sides. With compromise, everybody ends up being heard, understood and valued.
Sadly, we were unable to compromise last year – at least in our voting. What we did achieve, in a backwards way, is a solution that we now accept and perhaps celebrate. We have used our street sign to promote social justice for women, native Americans, Jews, Muslims and Black Lives. We’ll continue to do that for them and others.
Our seeming failure to empathize is something I ironically have empathy for. Indeed, Black Lives Matter is being discussed in UU churches everywhere and its a discussion our nation continues to have. We, like most people, are conditioned to form intellectual opinions and be afraid of both our emotions and those of others. I very much am like that. I’m more comfortable in my head than I am with my emotions. It’s understandable that we’re not always understanding. We can, however, learn to be quiet and actively listen to each other. We can conditon our minds to stop analyzing, judging and solving when another speaks. And we can train our hearts to be open to feel the feelings we hear or sense. Finally, we can honor the sincere feelings of others such that we want them to win too.
And so for me, resurrection of human society is not just about politcs, activism or charity. It’s not just about systemic change. It’s about the resurrection of each person at the most elemental level. Humanity needs to listen, undertand and not judge each other’s feeliings. I need, we all need, empathy.