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Joan E. Dowlin Headshot

What's Wrong With Empathy?

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The current Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor has brought back the debate about President Obama's view that "empathy" is a quality that should be prized on the bench. Many Republicans as well as Elisabeth Hasslebeck on "The View" disagree and have expressed worry that "empathy" should not be practiced in decisions made by Supreme Court Justices because they need to be impartial. It's a nice thought but it is impractical when appied to human beings. And judges are humans, not robots.

Dictionary.com defines "empathy" as "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experience of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another." We all as humans have felt "empathy" at one time or another for individuals or groups of people depending on our life experiences.

While recently watching on TV, Frank Capra's 1934 movie "It Happened One Night" starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, I was reminded of an earlier, more innocent time in our history. Gable and Colbert's characters are traveling by bus to NYC, both short on cash (he's lost his job and she is running away and had her bag stolen). They come across a poor young boy with a sick mother who are fellow passengers. They give them all the money they have. As in most Capra films, it all turns out in the end. His movies seem to have a common theme of giving to those less fortunate, a quality seemingly lacking in today's "every man for himself" society.

It appears that as Americans we have lost out moral compass. In my opinion, we could use a little more action directed from the heart and not the head. This is why I was glad to see President Obama choose Dr. Regina Benjamin as his Surgeon General nominee. She is a "hands-on" Alabama doctor who ran a clinic in rural Bayou La Batre and made house calls after Hurricane Katrina and as one of her patients shared "does so many great things from her heart."

Not since President George H. Bush's expressed desire for a "kinder, gentler nation" has a chief executive made such a sweeping effort to change the tone of Washington. President Obama's nomination picks, his reaching across the aisle to the GOP and past rivals (Hillary Clinton), and his positive foreign policy overtures to nations that have mistrusted us in the past have defined his leadership style. Many conservatives have accused Obama of being weak on defense for his open-handed philosophy.

I disagree. I, for one, am glad for the end of former President George W. Bush's "cowboy diplomacy," fear mongering, and pre-emptive strikes talk. Of course other nations know we are a strong military power with nuclear capability. We don't need to be a bully to be respected. In fact, I believe fear and intimidation breed tension in the world making us less safe.

Domestically, in my opinion, fear and greed have fueled our recent ecomonic recession. Overspending (two wars and natural disasters), lack of regulation on Wall Street (sub-prime mortgage crisis), and tax breaks for the wealthy did not help. But despite financial anxiety, I believe we need empathy now more than ever.

The economic crisis points out how interconnected we all are. If we follow President Obama's lead by taking responsibility for our own financial situations, respecting and supporting one another, we can collectively climb out of this hole and become a "kinder, gentler nation." Just like a Frank Capra movie.