I read with great interest that Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe has warmed up to his Democratic colleagues. What precipitated this unlikely melting of partisan boundaries was an outpouring of support after his son’s fatal plane crash on Nov. 10.
As the conservative senator commented: “I seem to have gotten more — well at least as many, maybe more — communications from some of my Democrat friends. And I’m a pretty partisan Republican. And so something like this happens and all of a sudden the old barriers that were there — the old differences, those things that keep us apart — just disappear.”
Wow! The old difference suddenly disappeared when the senator’s usual opponents displayed human empathy in his moment of grief and vulnerability. That got me thinking. What if the entire United States Congress had a revelation that human vulnerability is something we all share? What if it suddenly dawned on all of us that in any given moment, millions of our family members — our American family — are experiencing a similar vulnerability or trauma? And what if, even though we don’t know these people personally, we opened our hearts to their stories and allowed ourselves to be affected by their sorrow and challenges?
For one person, it might be a decline in health or the terminal diagnosis of a family member; for another, being laid off and the terror of not knowing how they’ll pay bills. For a single parent reeling from divorce, there might be the additional insult of not having money to feed the children. For parents pursuing the American Dream of raising a happy family, it might be this: heartbreaking news that developmental deficits in their child are linked to a nearby toxic waste site or pollution spewing from a factory that was not adequately regulated.
Neuroscience is finding that we’re wired for connection. Attachment theory, which is based on sound research, suggests that humans cannot thrive without healthy bonds. Martin Luther King expressed it poetically: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Those who reside in America are part of the American family. We also belong to the human family. The senator’s tragic loss and his generous response may remind us that we’re first and foremost human beings. We need each other and need to look out for each other, such as to ensure that our air is clean, our food is safe, and our fellow humans who are desperate can trust that help is available.
It’s not a weakness to be vulnerable. It’s simply human. We all struggle at times and need supportive words, kind acts, or a helping hand.
The impulse to care about people who are vulnerable doesn’t mean we’re a bleeding heart liberal — a term that’s perhaps designed to shame people into just caring about themselves. Being touched by others’ suffering is simply the natural response of one human heart to another. It is a spontaneous movement toward empathy, whatever ideologies our minds might entertain. A bleeding heart leaves one helpless and powerless; a resilient heart can care for oneself, while also being responsive to others.
A concrete example of our interconnectedness is the Russian roulette that leads to your child being killed in a random shooting or by a drunk driver. Tragedies that affect both rich and poor might be minimized if we created affordable treatment programs or helped struggling families raise their children with dignity.
We might like to believe that everyone should relish his or her independence, but we’re interdependent creatures. We affect each other and need each other. Cultivating a deep and rich empathy can help us be more responsive to each other’s needs. This can raise our gross national happiness index, which is used in Bhutan to measure progress.
What if we created a think tank to develop policies based upon our evolving understanding of how we’re humanly wired? Wouldn’t our quality of life improve if we created a society that supported our fullest human potential?
For those of us who are doing pretty well, it often takes some tragedy to open our heart and awaken us to our common humanity. We’re all part of the human condition and we share much more with each other than we have differences.