I was almost entirely apolitical until I was 26. I disliked everything about politics. There was the conspicuous phoniness, the hyperbole, the competitiveness, and the consistent low burning reek of corruption from which neither party seemed immune. All of this was bad enough, but above all there was the hostility. Everyone seemed to simply hate everyone on the other team, and since politics was where society was supposed to work together to solve its problems, I found little solace in the tenor of political debate. And then in 1991 I heard Dan Quayle say something about “family values,” which sounded just a bit too Orwellian even for my pallet, and I became political. I read The New York Times, I watched Sunday news programs, and I cheered for my team and complained about the fools across the aisle. It brought me a lot of misery, frankly, but I am glad I did it. Before, I was scared of politics; eventually I learned that politics was as human as any endeavor as any on earth. Though it would be funny to say otherwise, humans do not actually scare me.
Over the last five years – since I started this magazine, in fact – my daily intake of political news has dropped precipitously. I thought of this Tuesday when I spoke with Erica Bauermeister on Author2Author. Erica likes to write from numerous characters’ points of view, an approach that quickly becomes a discipline of empathy. The writer, she pointed out, must love all her characters equally, regardless of whether she would agree with them or not.
I want all the world’s problems solved as much as anyone else, but not at the expense of empathy. In fact, it has been my observation that humanity suffers most when it disregards its natural and powerful impulse toward empathy. To do otherwise, even in the name of justice and equality, is to deny what we actually are. It is this choice—the denial, not the insults or injuries or injustice but the denial of self that is a withholding of empathy—that inflicts the pain we regularly attribute to outside causes.
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