This has been a big week for empathy in my household -- starting with the elections, as we watched those who lost bear-up bravely under crushing disappointments. My week also included The Sessions, a terrific and frank film that offers a ticket into the chaste world of a polio survivor, and invites the audience to experience his quest to overcome profound barriers to human emotional intimacy that his disability had previously foreclosed to him. The week ended with the crashing downfall of an American hero, as former General Petraeus resigned his leadership of the CIA, in adulterous disgrace.
The facts continue to emerge as to the latter incident – we don’t yet know whether he has simply joined the non-exclusive political hypocrites club of found-out philanderers, or whether his affair with another married person was a true aberration. I do know that I’ve been there often enough to understand that there are places in a marriage that outsiders just never see, and about which we cannot know – such that we ought to resist simplistic, he-done-her-wrong conclusions.
We also know that there is irony in this public exposition of the General’s privates (sorry, Mrs. Lovett!), based in his former disdain for others who had broken similar vows. But mostly we have to be aware that there’s an awful agony making the rounds here, and we’d be less than our best selves not to feel empathy for the tragic emotional plague that’s been visited on at least two houses, and their several children.
Giving Mr. Petraeus a hero’s benefit of the doubt (I’m sure there’ll be some score-settling on the reputation front, capitalizing on his weakened state), I suspect that he will come to understand from this humiliation that, despite all the Rules Web Link , occasionally, “life happens” in unplanned, sometimes unwelcome and yet irresistible ways. He has been a man of accomplishment, high principle, duty and achievement on behalf of others, but he, and she, both managed to betray the very two people to whom they had most and publicly promised their faithfulness. While you wouldn’t wish these circumstances on anyone, that humility may be one of the most important life lessons a person can learn. When circumstance gobsmacks you upside Your very own noggin, you become a wiser, if sadder, participant in the human race.
In an earlier context, one might assume that former VP Mr. Cheney would have opposed same-sex marriage “on principle,” as do many of his philosophical neighbors. His family had been blessed, however, with a lesbian daughter -- and, sure enough, he favored full social participation for her and others who share her sexual orientation. Life happened, and informed his approach, at least on that issue. Query how President Bush, the Younger, might have conceived this question had one of his twins been attracted to Ms. Cheney?
Sometimes, the empathy lesson is incompletely learned. During the recent campaign, it was said of Mr. Romney that he had spent countless hours lay-ministering to people close to him. I have little doubt that he’s a person capable of deeply caring about people he knows and sees. Thus, it was surprising to me that this was the same man who would unhesitatingly consign untold others, unknown to him, to the medical mercies of the ER (“That’s why there are emergency rooms,” on 60 Minutes). He could also state that nearly half the citizenry are not his concern because “they consider themselves victims.” Somehow, he couldn’t translate his immediate capability for caring into a broader concept of empathy as expressed in policy.
Or had he seen too little during his life of relative privilege? That’s my fiancee’s theory. The best thing he could have done at some point in his marathon candidacy, she believes, would have been to go and live with a very poor family, to share their struggle and understand the difficult odds they face daily, well toward the base of Maslov’s Need Hierarchy. Smart gal, my fiancée.
Perhaps this empathy notion is related to the concept of “compassionate conservatism” – which is a very tough sell to many on the Right of the spectrum, and an oxymoron to Southpaws. It seems that contemporary conservatives would sooner side with Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, and cut out the heart of a defaulting debtor, as required by a binding legal contract (a “bad life choice” by old Antonio).
But didn’t Portia have the better part of the argument, in her “quality of mercy” speech? Web Link Shouldn’t leaders have a feeling for the consequences of their decisions on living, bleeding people, rather than just, say, mechanistically slashing and burning their way through the budget?
I don’t want my leaders to forget to limit spending. But neither did I want Antonio’s heart removed in the play, and I don’t want my leaders’ hearts cut out, either – or even checked at the Oval Office door. As the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes observed: “the life of the law is experience.” Experience that teaches empathy, and animates public policy priorities.
I don’t know what lies in-store for Mr. Petraeus, his wife, mistress or anyone else caught in this sad, sordid web of deceit. He certainly fell on his sword in a remarkably public way – a ritual of shame and regret. He had to resign, in my view, because of both his high position as exemplar to his subordinates, and the special circumstances of the agency he ran. I suspect that he will seek redemption at some point, and as we all know, America loves a comeback. If that transpires, I think he will be a better leader for his hard-won understanding that “life happens.”