There’s a marvelous story explaining the definition of chutzpah, the wonderful Yiddish word that loosely means impudence of gall. A woman gets on a crowded bus, looks around, and then says to a man already seated, “If you had what I had you’d let me take your seat.” Of course, says the man, please sit down. There’s a pause, and then the polite fellow asks what the woman has. “Chutzpah” she replies, “Chutzpah.”
If you had what I had! Joking aside, if I could flood our culture with one specific quality it would be empathy, the ability to feel what others have and don’t have, to feel for them and with them, to understand. It’s at the heart, and soul, of being a Christian.
I’m a priest, and what three years of ministry have shown me time and time again is the degree of pain and suffering out there, along with how complex and nuanced people and issues really are. Anybody, cleric or not, who pronounces on profound moral issues in absolutes and certainties has clearly never got their hands dirty.
I’m also a realist, and I don’t believe that leaps of empathy will automatically stop wars, end poverty, and have us all hugging in the streets. I do think, this I know in fact, that if we can see the world through the eyes of others, it changes us, changes them, changes everything.
It’s one thing to see the plight of another and have sympathy, another to walk alongside that person and try to share the struggle. On crucial issues I would, a decade ago, declare with unqualified and undented confidence—perhaps arrogance is more accurate—from a fairly conservative standpoint. Spend some time with those living every day in fear, confusion, doubt, and deprivation and suddenly the roaring definites once so firmly and even blithely held begin to evaporate and disappear. Even in the hell of war this makes a difference.
My Odessa-born great-uncle spent four years on the front lines of World War II in the Red Army. One can only imagine what he saw. In Berlin, victory assured, his men brought him a young German prisoner. My uncle knew this man was a Nazi, but set him free. I was a child when I heard the story and asked him why he’d done it. “I’d seen enough,” he said.
What he was actually saying, I later realized, was that he’d seen through the eyes of others. In spite of his own suffering, in spite of what this German may have done, it was time to inject humanity into the least humane of contexts.
Most of us, thank God, will never face such a decision but if we analyze our daily lives we’re often confronted with all sorts of choices. How do we react to hostility or disappointment, do we listen to opposing points of view, do we hold back from a dismissive comment, do we connect or reject?
Just a few moments on social media will reveal what is often a total lack of empathy. What can be, and sometimes is, a warm and inviting venue for informed disagreement or learning and maturing, is frequently a bloodbath of objectification and abuse. I’ve been a victim of this, and while I can take it, I do wonder about the people who spew such venom. Good Lord, it often comes from people who are supposed to follow a man who demanded pristine and endless empathy.
My wish for Canada, the church, and for the world, is that we join the communal dance, throw ourselves into mutual understanding, and develop a new vision that can see deeply into the hearts and lives of others. Imagine for a moment if physical pain could be felt by an onlooker? It would transform all of us. And as Christ Jesus told us time and time again, we and the world certainly need transforming. Pray God it happens.