Recently I was speaking positively about a potential presidential run by Vice President Joe Biden when a friend told me that I was only doing that because of the tragedies that the Vice President and his family had experienced. After all, this friend said, your own tragedy (the sudden loss of my husband of 25 years at age 51) colors your thinking and makes you identify with him. Although this sad commonality will certainly not be my deciding factor in choosing whom to support for our next President, I believe that factor is not to be overlooked or ignored.
I would argue that those events that touched the Vice President's life should not be dismissed lightly as a presidential qualifier. Rather, they enhance uniquely all of the other qualifications that Joe Biden has to be our President. Putting aside all of those qualifications (Vice President; 30+ year U.S. Senator; Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), his very difficult life experiences amplify those attributes. Why does his personal history impact the calculus of whether he should be able to go the next step -- being elected as President of the United States? I believe that empathy is the key factor.
Tragedy befalls empathy. Psychologists have noted that those who have experienced a tragedy in their lives often become more empathetic people. Psychology Today defines empathy as "understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors."
Empathy, in the governmental sense, makes one more in tune with actual people and their actual problems. For example, instead of perceiving unemployment as a statistic, the empathetic policymaker sees a person sitting around the kitchen table struggling with self worth and figuring out how to pay the bills. That ability to feel other's concrete problems directs that policymaker's actions.
I believe that the fascination at this time with outsiders as candidates for President reflects the belief that political insiders, who may look more like real people on paper than a billionaire or former CEO of a Fortune 500 company, have failed to put themselves in the shoes of those they represent. Instead, the public sees a preoccupation with political wrangling at the expense of the needs of the people. Getting something done so that real people can have real results is what the public is seeking -- representation by those who know that delay is not just a concept or a talking point, but is a mouth that goes unfed or a basic human need not met. As Teddy Roosevelt said, "No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."
Empathy is a frequently used term now in our public discourse. President Obama has spoken of it often. Moreover, there have been numerous articles about how to make someone more empathetic. However, there have also been articles questioning the value of empathy qua empathy and also criticizing it as applied to public policy. (The cited example is the unwillingness to send soldiers to war because of the cost of one soldier's life versus the fact that the war could ultimately save more lives.) Having an "empacenter" does not exclude one from being tough, decisive and thorough on the job. It just enters into the calculus of the decision. Why wouldn't an empathetic person determine that it is better to sacrifice some lives to save many more? After all, that's suffering for fewer families.
Empathy also does not mean anything, in a political sense, unless it is used to motivate someone to solve the problems suffered by others. That is compassionate action -- the natural extension of empathy. What this electorate is crying out for is someone who not only feels their pain but who acts to ease it. That is the sign of a good and worthy leader.
It is a given, of course, that not everyone who experiences a tragedy is empathetic or that a candidate has to have had that in his or her life in order to be empathetic. However, in Joe Biden's case, he does exhibit that trait in spades. You can see that in his 2012 speech to families of military personnel killed in action where he relived his grief with those families.
For reasons that are difficult to explain, enduring a tragedy is politically liberating. I can't quantify it and I can't prove it, but I know from personal experience it is true. It becomes easier to do the thing that is difficult politically because you are unafraid of the consequences in a way that you might have been earlier. That's basically the case because you have faced the worst of what life has to offer so who cares about some political backlash? It's a kind of badge of courage that comes from suffering.
As Elisabeth Kubler Ross, the noted expert on death and dying, concluded:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
What's wrong with having a president who is a beautiful person?