Holiday Gift Bag: Compassion and Empathy

This isn’t the usual Holiday Gift Bag installment. See, I’ve been re-reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” lately, which is something I try to do every few years, and I was marveling at how relevant it still is today. We see 21st century Scrooges almost everywhere we look. A lot of the anti-poverty programs that Scrooge advocated for during the first chapter of the book seem similar to programs that more modern wealthy misers have also advocated. The idea of working low-level employees on holidays is coming back into style. The scene where Christmas Present reveals Ignorance and Want was positively revelatory to me this year. Reading the book has got me thinking about a lot of stuff lately.

So in this installment of the Holiday Gift Bag, I’m not suggesting you go buy something as a holiday gift. I’m suggesting you do something to make the world a slightly better place. I’m asking that you try to nurture your senses of compassion and empathy.

The past week saw news stories about Christmas shoppers spraying other people with pepper spray, getting into fights, trampling employees, ignoring dying customers in the rush for bargains they could’ve gotten any other day of the season. Our politicians and pundits advocate for policies that would throw the unemployed to the wolves, that would send poor children to work in place of janitors, that would have poor people paying more taxes than the “job creators” who never seem to create any jobs.

There are people out there who cheer the ideas that private insurance should be too expensive for anyone but the wealthy and that people who can’t afford insurance should die of preventable diseases. There are people out there who look at the 10% unemployment rate, with hundreds of applicants for lowly burger-flipping jobs, and huff that the unemployed are just too lazy to work. There are people out there who think unemployment and welfare pay so lavishly that people choose to stay on the dole.

Sometimes, it seems like we’re trying to un-create civilization — like we’ve decided, as a culture, that having a sane society is just no fun anymore, so we’re gonna see how things work as a hellhole fresh out of Ayn Rand’s or Jason Voorhees’ wet dreams.

Part of the problem is certainly ignorance — people just don’t know how things are outside of their bubble, and their assumptions are deeply uninformed. But another part of the problem is that there are an awful lot of sociopaths running the political world and the mass media, and they’ve spent the past few decades getting paid very well to make sociopathy look sexy and fun. They’ve done a very good job of promoting the idea that it’s patriotic to dehumanize 99% of their fellow people because they don’t have the right politics or the right culture or the right level of wealth or the right level of personal attractiveness.

In the past few years, we’ve even seen people in the media and in our Congress claim that empathy is a bad thing to possess. Sure, maybe it is for psychotics and serial killers, who need to have no sympathy for the random people they’re trying to kill. But for the rest of us, if someone said you didn’t have any empathy or compassion for others, you’d think it was a huge insult. And you’d be right.

So seriously, make an effort to remember that not everyone has your advantages, and just because someone doesn’t have those advantages, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy, it doesn’t mean they’re taking anything from you, it doesn’t mean they’re destroying America, and it doesn’t mean you should be happy when bad things happen to them.

This is the type of thing you usually hear a lot of around the holidays. And it’s a good message, it really is. Compassion during the holidays is one of the best things about the holidays — opening your heart to all your fellow creatures is what gives this time of year the power that it still holds over us. But I hate it when those compassionate urges disappear after December 25th. And I hate it when people use the holidays as a weapon to attack others — either using a holiday greeting that the TV blowhards don’t approve of, or letting consumerism take over our good sense, or proclaiming that people who celebrate other holidays at this time of year — or none at all — aren’t deserving of the goodwill we offer to our own tribe. I wish compassion and empathy were the standards year-round, not the exceptions.

It’s a rough economy, I know, and I don’t think everyone should go out and spend all their money on charities. Please feel free to give to a good charity, if you’re able. But these days, you gotta keep your head above water first.

But even if you can’t contribute money to others, if you can’t give to the local food pantries or coat drives or toy drives or whatever, if you don’t sling soup at the homeless shelter or take boxes of cookies to the nursing home or go caroling at the hospital, please don’t let yourself devolve into the kind of thuggery, resentment, and hatemongery we have to see on the cable news channels. The only people who benefit from that are the cable news channels themselves, not you, not your family, not your neighbors.

It’s a hard life for all of us, but it’s a lot harder for some folks than others. Please remember that we’re all in this together. I mean, we’re all comic book people ’round here, right? Let’s try to be the heroes and not the villains.

Compassion and empathy: They’re free, and they make us all feel better. Please go pick some up.

1 Comment

  1. Christa the BabbyMama Said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 8:57 am

    YES! I wish more people in certain segments of my family would recognize that not everyone in the U.S. is born with the exact same advantages and opportunities. That whole line is such BS, that we all have equal opportunity. Or maybe we do, but some people have to struggle 1000 times more to achieve that same thing that for someone with money or other advantages comes without any effort at all.