Yesterday, I had one of those experiences that reminds me that while I am beloved, in the scale of the universe, I am smaller. I had gotten up early to go to my internship church and talk to a group of teens about Unitarian Universalism again. I rode an Amtrak bus from Portland to Salem and called a taxi to get to the church. I had to wait a while, but then the taxi came.
An Amtrak worker came out to talk to the taxi driver. "Can you get another cab to come here? That guy has to go to Sheridan."
The driver called dispatch and got it word. It would be about twenty-five minutes or half an hour.
"All right," the man said, "but I'm already running late."
And then I left. As we drove, the taxi driver explained to me.
"He's been in jail, but now they are transferring him to less security. He could run away, but why would he? He only has a few months left. If he is late, he will have fewer chances of getting out early for good behavior."
All at once, I understood. He couldn't call a cab because he'd been in jail without a phone. If I'd understood, I might have been able to give him the cab that I'd caught. With my phone. That I use all the time. I hoped that he would make it on time and that he would have a smooth afternoon.
I would usually say that I am an empathetic person; that I wish to consider life from the point of view that the experience of another person might give. The tricky thing is this: there are some experiences that are beyond me, some things, about going to jail, for example, that I can't know by guessing but I can observe. Is this part of what keeps social justice movements covering the same ground, over and over, like a person pacing over the same three feet of grass until it is tamped down, beginning to be bare?
Carl Rogers put it this way,
"To be with another in this way means that for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another's world without prejudice.
In some sense it means that you lay aside your self and this can only be done by a person who is secure enough in himself that he knows he will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and can comfortably return to his own world when he wishes. Perhaps this description makes clear that being empathic is a complex, demanding, strong yet subtle and gentle way of being."
Rogers was confident that empathy was one of the key factors in bringing about change and learning in people's hearts. I don't know precisely all the ways I can teach people to develop and exercise their own empathy for one another and for people they meet, but I will try. In part, I wanted to tell you this story so that you could think about what it might be like to leave prison in one place and have to go to another without a phone to make arrangements and without being late. It seemed challenging.
This kind of love is missing in a lot of places in the world. Where can we add it?
Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:3, The Message)