Making Hope and Empathy Real

In so many ways, the country is unraveling before our eyes. Yet, I have no doubt that in time we will respond effectively. But which paths we take will be crucial, and there are two key ingredients that we must bring to our collective efforts. As I see it, the urgent task is to restore a renewed sense of hope and empathy. Progress depends on it and here's why. The news these days can be dangerous to your mental health. Just yesterday Citigroup slashed 52,000 jobs. General Motors is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Home foreclosures continue to shake the very foundation of people's lives and community life. AIG will receive up to $85 billion in federal help. We continue to fight two wars, and the costs keep spiraling up. The list goes on.

My belief is that we must find ways to tap into our history of hope to sustain and fortify ourselves and our efforts; and we must renew our sense of empathy so that we can understand reality for what it is, and shape the future we want. Each of us must take a piece of this work and make it our own.

If there is one lesson from American history it is that in times like these we have good reason to be genuinely hopeful. Such hope is rooted in something much more enduring and proven than mere optimism. It is neither fleeting nor shallow; it is not based on one day's news cycle, or a single speech, or one set of actions. We have witnessed hard times before and consistently found productive ways forward. Our track record is of a "can-do" nation.

This brings me to the second ingredient: empathy. In recent years our public life and politics have been driven by tools of avoidance when it comes to people's plight and pain. There has been a certain "hard-nosed" mentality, which often implied that people should fend for themselves, alongside a charitable impulse that suggested that our problems can be solved by people writing checks or volunteering for an hour. There is some merit to both approaches, but in these hard times both fall woefully short. We must turn our attention to people and not fear what we will see.

A new sense of empathy would enable us to recognize the challenges and concerns of people, and understand how we might respond. This is not some backdoor ploy to open up government coffers and mindlessly write checks to anyone or any company that expresses need. The task at hand requires much more from us. We must exercise empathy so that we are able to see and hear the realities around us, and then to make discerning judgments and choices about what should be done.

For instance, should General Motors be bailed out, and what will happen to auto workers, and their suppliers, who lose their jobs, and all the communities impacted? What about all the people whose homes have been foreclosed? How long do we keep various non-profits open, and how would we make those judgments? Can climate change be used to spur new industries and green jobs, and in what ways can we get moving locally?

The point is that we must be willing to see and hear each other in these times, and to reach into our history and within ourselves for the confidence to make the judgments and choices to move ahead. Each of us will need to step forward, and we must help each other along the way.

Take the first step, and help others get on the path making hope and empathy real