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A Second Chance for Empathy

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Before the Supreme Court heard two cases recently about the hotly divided gay marriage issue, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman announced that he had changed his position on the subject. Once having co-sponsored a bill opposing gay marriage, Portman's change of heart resulted from his son's revelation that he is gay. Portman's experience accentuates a recurring theme in society, which is that personal turmoil--whether addiction, racism, incarceration, sexuality, or even illness--is often the catalyst for renewed empathy.

Day-to-day empathy is something that often eludes us given the temptations for quick judgment and rationalizations about why some things befall others and not us.

Portman's evolution, in particular, is a meaningful lesson for all of us to heed with caution. Many find it is easy to frame something like gay marriage in calloused terms until it impacts you directly, at which point lacking empathy could come back to haunt you.

On Friday, my ex-friend and former trader at SAC Capital, was indicted for insider trading. I awoke to dozens of emails about the news and peoples' sentiments that I should take pleasure in the irony of his troubles. Years earlier we had a dispute that escalated to an obscene level, and it caused real trauma in my life. I was amidst my own legal troubles at the time and emotional and felt my friend was being judgmental. So, my parting shot was that he should be careful about judging me. With the benefit of time, distance, and my own life experiences, though, I take no pleasure in watching his misfortunes play out on the front page of the New York Times. I believe he deserves empathy just like I did at the time.

It is entirely possible that my reaction of profound and genuine sadness for his plight might not have been realized without my own relatable personal experience. We should all appreciate that unexpected turns can ensnare people who we would least expect. It could be your brother who is gay, your daughter who marries outside of the religion or race, your father who gets hooked on drugs, or you who finds yourself in legal trouble Each of us would benefit from a pause before passing judgment.

This theme plays out in our criminal justice system regularly, too. Courts are supposed to consider "mitigating factors" before somebody is sentenced in a criminal trial. Ostensibly, that is society's recognition that we should be empathetic and consider whether somebody perhaps acted out of character in a particular instance. In January of this year, there was international outrage about the suicide of prodigy and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz. His father has said that "prosecutors are responsible for his son's death." There was an overwhelming sense that the potential punishment did not fit the so-called crime and that prosecutors simply viewed Swartz as another investigative target rather than in the true human light that he deserved.

Empathy played an enormous role in the last two presidential elections too. Pundits can point to all sorts of data, but at the end of the day, President Obama won both elections because people felt he understood their suffering and could relate better to them than the other candidates. Oprah Winfrey, an incredible businesswoman, indeed built an empire selling empathy. People like their doctors and their lawyers to be able to relate and understand their struggle too.

None of this is to say that those who err should get a free pass. But empathy should always inform our judgments and our views of others.

America remains a land of second chances. We increasingly see politicians, like former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who attempt comebacks in their public careers. We love comeback stories precisely because we can all relate to them. Indeed, the greatest sin of all, is the sin of hypocrisy. What makes hypocrisy so offensive is the idea that somebody judged but could not live up to the standards they set. Everyday, it would behoove us to be cognizant that we shouldn't judge others too harshly until we've walked a mile in their shoes.