For some of us in the human realization game, the high water mark of our development is empathy. Some may fear that this is some new crackpot liberal conspiracy idea to make sure that the Taliban take over America and get rid of Dick Cheney and the Tea Partiers.

Others might claim that empathy is a value held in high regard in that old canard, our Judeo-Christian ethics. As religious philosopher Karen Armstrong tells us, it is the unifying idea in every religion. It is popularly known as the Golden Rule.

Yet though just about anyone would agree that Jesus was one compassionate dude, empathy is being looked on with suspicion by certain upstanding Americans. On June 28th, Elena Kagan was vetted by the United States Senate to determine if she was suitable to join the Supreme Court of our land. In his opening remarks at those hearings, our honorable white, male, and good Christian Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said,

“Even today, President Obama advocates a judicial philosophy that calls on judges to base their decisions on empathy and their “broader vision of what America should be.” He suggests that his nominee shares that view. Our legal system does not allow such an approach.”

At least he tried to wrap his view in the dignity of a legal interpretation, as compared to Michael Steele, the head of the RNC, who said, “Crazy nonsense empathetic. I’ll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!”

The question of whether empathy has its place in our justice system is well discussed in a commentary piece by Seymour Toll for The Philadelphia Enquirer, written on the same day as Sessions spoke, “Has Everyone Stopped Caring About Empathy?”

In a fascinating irony, despite the fact that empathy and compassion are getting an X rating these days by some in the justice game, it has now become part of the parlance of war. In an article at,  General David Patraeus who just took over the command of the war in Afghanistan is quoted as saying that “ . . .we must continue to demonstrate our resolve to the enemy. We will do so through . . . our compassion for the Afghan people and through our example and the values that we live.”

We must be compassionate in order to win a war, but we must eschew it in the exercise of justice at home. Strange, that. I wonder if there is any relationship to this to be found in the fact that we rush to spend money to kill – the $636 billion dollar Defense Appropriations Bill (!) was passed easily last year in the senate by a vote of 93 – 7 in no time at all, (this year the figure is going up to $680 billion) while we suspect and demonize spending money on life, with the Health Reform Act slowly squeaking through Congress where no Republican voted for the measure in the house, and the senate approving 56 – 43. Guess who voted no? Maybe the same people who don’t like the “E” word.

Is there a place for empathy in justice? As usual, these kinds of questions send us back to Plato, and his teacher, Socrates, who were the first to try to answer these kinds of questions in a consistently logical way. The question starts with, what is justice anyway? And in the end, Socrates’s answer, like always, is, “who knows?” I can’t provide a certain answer, but I’ll go with my teacher, the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who tells us that in the Confucian view, the first quality of the true leader is empathy and compassion. This is the realization of a leader’s human capacity, and through this they will realize their purpose as leaders, which is to make the people happy. Justice, to my mind, is to find the right, and that right is the true and the good, and the true and good leads to happiness. The purpose of justice, then, is to lead to the happiness of the people, which I think Jefferson said something about in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. And if the essence of empathy is the Golden Rule, or doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, then wanting the good of others is the essence of empathy. That sounds like justice to me. I think it was Jesus who said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it, and that fulfillment was love.

But I could be wrong. What do you think? What is justice and should empathy be a part of it?

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Obama Nazi communistObama claims to want to help Americans by improving health care. He states that he wants to create a system where health care would be available to the 50 million people in this country who don’t have it, and reduce costs for the rest of us. He says that he wants to insure the long term viability of Medicare and Medicaid. He wants to provide more preventative care so that we live healthier, longer lives, reducing the need to manage debilitating diseases like diabetes. He makes the case that all of this would improve our long-term economic outlook. Now what could be wrong with all of that? Well, then, why has he provoked such anger with this plan?

I believe the most significant reason is a strange phenomenon that I have recognized through doing couple’s counseling, which I call “couple trap number two.” Here is how it works. One of the partners has a long standing need that has gone unmet. Let’s say the wife wants her husband to say “I love you.” For years, she has railed in pain and frustration about how he never says those words. Utilizing my techniques, the husband finally softens, and says the magic words, “I love you.” Now we would expect that the wife, having finally gotten what she wanted, would be grateful, thrilled, excited. Oh, no. As soon as he speaks, I start counting backwards from 10. By the time I get to 7, almost without fail, the wife gets furious. She says, “You didn’t say it the right way! You didn’t mean it! You’ll never say it again!” and the like. The husband gets angry and says, “You think I’ll ever say that again? You’ve got another thing coming!” It is as if I tipped a see-saw out of balance, and within a few seconds everything goes right back to where it had begun. The status quo is reestablished. The wife returns to complaining, the husband to withholding. Why do people get mad when they finally get what they want?

When we are emotionally hurt enough times, we not only learn that we shouldn’t trust the world, but we also come to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with ourselves. The feeling that goes along with this belief is shame. This feeling and belief may be so pervasive that we are barely aware of it.

Let’s say we are a child and have an alcoholic father who treats us cruelly when he gets drunk. We know we can’t fight him, and so we simply hide the terrible humiliation we feel. This humiliation festers within us. This results in us feeling like there must be something wrong with us. That is why Dad treats us so bad.

Finally, after 8 years, mom gets rid of this guy and marries someone who is sober and really nice. This new guy wants to do good things for us. He makes big promises. The promise of getting what we want brings up not having had our needs met in the past. All the buried anger that we have kept inside comes bubbling up to the surface. We feel the kindling of hope within that we are finally going to be treated well and get what we need. This hope brings up fear. If we allow ourselves to want, we risk being disappointed again. We must reject this hope and tell ourselves it is all a lie. It will never come true! Our dad always made promises he never kept. Why would it be different now? We get angry at ourselves for being such a fool.  Since we have become convinced that we are bad, we know that we don’t deserve good treatment anyway. When someone offers us something positive, we can’t take it in, because it doesn’t conform to our negative view of ourselves. Why would Obama really want to do anything good for me? It’s all a sham! Irrespective of the treatment we may have received from our cruel father, we are also loyal to him. To accept this new, loving treatment is also to betray our rotten father. Out of loyalty, we would rather suffer than change.

So, when we are presented with a man who is offering us a positive change that will improve our lives, instead of responding with joy, many of us respond with fear and anger. Underneath that fear and anger is shame. This means that all too many of us have been continuously hurt and disappointed both in our personal lives and in our political lives. Seeing the possibility of good makes us feel things we would rather bury: our humiliations, our hurt, and our disappointment. Rather than feel those things we reject in anger. Since on a deep level all too many of us loath ourselves, we would rather destroy ourselves with obesity than accept the help that Obama’s new plan would provide. We find all the good reasons in the world why it just won’t work. When we have been so badly hurt in the past, our reaction to something good is to reject it. When people get angry at Obama, it is like the old story of the tiger who has been beaten in the circus. When the poor animal was finally offered food and kindness he attacked the giver.

If we want to gain people’s trust when they have been so wounded and feel so badly about themselves, like the tiger, we must approach them very gingerly. Until they can heal their shame their likely reaction will be to snap.

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Sarah PalinThe problems we face in life are often the result of having a lost heart. It is not difficult to understand what this means.  Lost heartedness is all around, and the consequences are easy to see. Having a lost heart does not preclude success or fame. In fact, some of our most apparently successful people provide the clearest examples what it looks like to have a lost heart. For example, five people who have been prominent in the news recently illuminate the conditions of having a lost heart, and its consequences. These are Michael Jackson, Bernie Madoff, Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford and Joe Brooks (the writer of the massive hit from the 1970’s, “You Light Up My Life”).

To have a lost heart means that we are distanced from that which we are meant to be. Mencius, the Chinese sage, would say that the heart is the part of us that has a taste for goodness. He would say that we all have the capacity for good. If we are properly cultivated, this native potential will be refined so that we will be drawn to the good and repulsed by the bad, much as the gourmand will be drawn to the delicious and repulsed by that which does not please the palate. When our capacity for goodness is realized, we do what is good and shun its opposite. To have a lost heart, then, means that, in part, our taste for goodness, our moral sense, has gone undeveloped. When a natural capacity goes undeveloped, it doesn’t simply remain in a unmatured state. Rather, human nature has a movement and a direction. If we are not moving toward growth, we are moving in the other direction, toward decay. We are not only stuck, we deteriorate. One sure sign of a corrupted capacity for goodness is shamelessness. If we have not developed our sense of what is good, right or proper then we can act in any way at all. We can easily choose the expedient over the virtuous. This can surely bring us immediate advantage. Such was the case with Bernie Madoff.bernie-madoff-jail-031209-lg He made enormous sums of money and lived a material life we could all envy. But like Midas, though all he touched turned to gold, he lived a life disconnected from the common good of humanity. He brought ruin onto all those he touched, including his family, and finally, in the end, himself. He did not have the inner moral compass that would have prevented him from such evil behavior. Sarah Palin, too, has shown a tremendous capacity for shamelessness. When asked whether she hesitated when asked to become candidate for vice-president, she said that she didn’t blink. She should have. She didn’t have the developed capacity for self-reflection that would have resulted in humbly asking herself whether she was truly prepared for the awesome task she was asked to take on. Then, when she was challenged as to her qualifications, she blamed others, saying that they had it out for her. When her limitations began to reveal themselves, she showed no ability to take responsibility for her own behaviors. Mark Sanford showed the same shamelessness, discussing his affair without perspective or concern for the feelings of others, inflating his infatuation into something of noble value. Michael Jackson may or may not have abused children privately, but when he claimed to have never harmed anyone, his defense was undermined by the image of him dangling his child out of a window. Again, he showed no taste for goodness. He could not recognize it when he was not doing the right thing. Dramatically illustrative of lost-heartedness is the story of Joe Brooks.JOe BrooksDebby Boone Mr. Brooks wrote “You Light Up My Life,” sung by Debby Boone. It was ostensibly about a relationship to God. It was a monster hit. Recently, Joe, at 71, was arrested on 11 counts of rape. Anyone who worked with Joe, and I did, knew his character. The irony that this man would pen a hit about a relationship to the divine was not lost on us. He treated all he came into contact with in a cruel way. What allowed Joe to be successful was his ability to put his product out into the world despite a clear lack of ability and effort. This gave him the ability to actually make two movies, one starring himself. This movie, “If Ever I Should See You Again,” is a must see for it competes for the ignominious status of being the worst movie ever made.

Mencius went on to say that when we  have lost contact with our original nature — our hearts– we are not living in alignment with the Heavenly Mandate. This means that there are laws and principles that the universe operates by. These laws reside within the individual, within the heart. Human nature is a reflection of universal nature. When we live against the laws of human nature we are living against the laws of universal nature. When we live against the laws of human, and universal, nature, we eventually, and in some way, either emotionally, spiritually or materially, suffer. Very often this suffering shows up as problems in our life. Madoff got thrown in jail for 150 years, Palin has multiple ethics violations against her and is hounded out of office, Sanford gets censured. It is no surprise that Brooks would get arrested for rape. These are merely the outward manifestations of a kind of inner suffering. But let me be clear; I am not heralding back to some old testament idea that we are punished for our sins. Quite the contrary. This is a tragic outcome, not of our own making. Our heart is made manifest when it is properly cultivated,  when it receives the proper emotional sun, soil, and water. If we do not receive this, or the opposite, we are wounded. These early emotional woundings leave their scars. They interfere with our ability to develop and mature our potentials, the realization of which we define as “having your heart.” Our capacities for thinking, feeling, imagining, acting and connection become limited. Our capacity for goodness, courage and love become corrupted, more or less. These are simply some of the worst examples that prove what each one of us suffers to a more limited extent.

These people are not bad, they are tragically hurt. Perhaps we can see this most vividly in the person who is the most sympathetic of these figures, and whose early wounds are most known, Michael Jackson. A story that captures both how we lose our hearts, and the consequences of such a loss, is Collodi’s story of Pinocchio. In this story, a puppet is made out of a useless piece of wood. He has no parents, and receives no parental nurturance. Though he has the small voice of conscience, an aspect of the nascent heart, represented by the character of the cricket, Pinocchio attempts to kill this part of himself. Pinocchio is empty and wooden; he wants to be “real,” but cannot figure out a way to become so. He acts without knowledge of the consequences of his acts and gets into trouble over and over again. He is more than a child, he is a narcissistically wounded one. This means that he experiences himself as wooden, worthless, and empty because he did not receive the necessary emotional receptiveness as an infant. We see how Michael was like a reverse Pinocchio; he showed us his intrinsic emptiness by making himself progressively unreal. He thought that if he could just manipulate the surface by perfecting his body, he would somehow achieve a quality of realness. But because he was devoid of a real heart, no matter how many surgeries he had, he never found what he was looking for. His quest for realness turned him into a monstrous mannequin, revealing the true state of his inner being; that which he was trying to hide and compensate for. We know that Michael, by his own description, had no childhood. He was beaten by his father and driven to be something not of his own choosing. His is a sad story. Clearly tormented, he could find no peace other than, it seems, at the end of a needle of powerful anaesthetic. That is a measure of the pain he was in.

We grieve the loss of Michael because we see our own story in his. We hear in his music the pain of endless longing, and how for a moment that longing can be transformed into beautiful art. But having never done the hard work of finding his lost heart, with nothing at the core, in the end, all he had was death.

These are all cautionary tales. Luckily, most of us do not have the rare combination of talent and woundedness to turn into Madoff, Palin or Brooks. But we disregard the warning signs at our peril. Pay attention to your problems. These stories, and our problems are the universe’s way of giving us a message: to find a path of fulfillment, instead of self-destruction, we must find our lost hearts.

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