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OPINION | LOWELL GRISHAM: The power of empathy

Life is about living in relationship by Lowell Grisham | August 24, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

I've been pretty discouraged lately. That's unusual for me. I'm a natural optimist. But I find myself deeply troubled.

This nation I love seems divided into hostile camps that can't talk with each other. Mistrust abounds. Opinion trumps fact. Ears are closed; so are minds. It feels like things are falling apart.

There is a poem by William Butler Yeats. The opening image is a gyre, a spiral motion, most commonly associated with great oceanic patterns. Ocean gyres are threatened by global climate change today. History also has its patterns, its gyres. The poem begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This was written soon after the Great War, World War I, the "War to End All Wars." I remember it being quoted often following 9/11, another time when it seemed anarchy was loosed upon the world and the center would not hold.

My friend Fred Burnham was just a few feet away from the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was in the darkness and smoke, surrounded by percussive sounds. Fred and a group of people with him were in a nearby building, certain that they would die that morning. Huddled in a dark, smoky stairwell, Fred looked around their enclosure.

Then something happened. Fred had an experience of bonding love within a circle of other human beings. He said that moment expanded into a transforming experience of the presence of God, the Source of love. He had no fear of death. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the interrelatedness of being. He dwelt in a "circle of love," a interrelationship of an eternal sense of belongingness. His experience of terror was transformed into an experience of infinite love.

Fred reflects on what he has learned from that experience. He has found himself even more committed to his two passions, science and theology. (He was a physicist before he was a priest.) And from that dual perspective, he speaks about how interrelated things are, physically and spiritually.

Fred believes there are two particular realities that frame his insight – relationship and empathy.

Relationship is at the core of being. Relationship is as fundamental to existence as the individual properties of the things (or beings) in relationship. Here's how Fred reinterprets the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; this is the first and great relationship; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two relationships hang all the structure and the order of creation."

At the heart of our capacity for relationship is our capacity for empathy. Within our neurological structure there are mirror neurons that allow us to look at another face to interpret what the other is experiencing. We can feel what another feels. From this comes our ability to live with compassion, to be in empathetic relationship with another. Out of that relationship comes the call to love and to serve the other. Because we can identify with them, we are in relationship.

Out of the ashes of 9/11, Fred experienced an expansive sense of relationship and empathy for all humanity. It is on this foundation, he says, that Jesus invites us to live in relationship, participating in what God is doing in the world. And what God is always doing is healing and loving. The whole story of the Bible is the story of God's empathetic relationship with humanity. Insofar as we are alive, we live in relationship to this fundamental reality – loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self.

From the ruins of all our disasters rises the spirit of empathetic compassion in relationship – resurrection in action. If we as individuals, and as a nation, are to share in the divine work of reconciliation and resurrection, we must embrace our fundamental calling to be in empathetic relationship with all humanity.

Jesus put it in its most difficult context: "But I say to you that listen. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (Luke 6:27-28)

The falconer calls out to the falcon. The call is "love." And then there is Dante's final image from another gyre, the center of the circle of Paradise – "The love that moves the sun and the other stars."

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