For a number of reasons, my default inclination is to be suspicious of anything said or written by a Mormon. That said, Stephen Covey is my favorite Mormon. His classic from around 15 years ago, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is full of sound advice, and I set aside my negative bias in his case. One of the big seven is "Seek first to understand before being understood."
In other words, empathize. Do it intentionally. Work at it. Make it a habit. Walk in the shoes of the "other." Learn to see the world through that one's eyes.
Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is agreement. It can be more cognitive or more affective, but in either case, it's a reflex, not a chosen behavior. Empathy, by contrast, has a definite volitional component. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but it's an act of the will. And it's an indispensable prerequisite for anything resembling reconciliation, rapprochement, relationship, or any kind of getting along at any level.
So I often wonder, in the midst of the ongoing Anglican soap opera, why partisans on both sides of the divide don't do more empathizing. I realize that there is more to what's going on than is immediately evident in the blogsphere. But it's the most widely accessible dimension, so I'll use it to illustrate my point. On the "orthodox" side, Stand Firm unquestionably has the highest quotient of wide readership and "in your face"-ness. The nearest parallel on the "progressive" end is perhaps Father Jake Stops the World. Now, in both cases, the cadre of commenters that one finds extend and amplify by several degrees the general tenor established by the blog hosts themselves.
But what I find astonishing, and quite frequently amusing, is that they are largely interchangeable in their emotional content. In other words, take away references to actual issues and events, and you wouldn't be able to tell which invective originates from which side. Both express copious amounts of anger. Both consider themselves to be the good guys, the ones who are on God's side, the ones who truly understand the gospel. Both consider themselves to be the victims, and their opponents the perpetrators, in this unholy mess.
And both, I am persuaded, are largely without guile, authentically sincere. Sure, there's ample bluster and rhetorical posturing when they meet on the field of cyber-battle. But the wonderful (and terrifying) thing about the internet is that it's not all that difficult to come by comments that players on both teams make while on the bench, while among their own, comments that are unguarded and presumably candid. And it is from these comments that I glean my impression that everyone is more or less telling the truth about how they see things. Nobody is trying to do a con job. I don't think there are any conspiracies.
But the accusations from both directions--accusations of disingenuousness and conspiracy--continue apace. On a daily basis. And if there's any empathizing being done, it's pretty hard to see. And I think this is just so darn stupid. Here's why:
Empathy makes the truth easier to see. Liberals would like to believe that their opponents are hate-driven bigots, ignorant yokels, white men who can't stand the thought of losing power, or naive idealists who won't accept the real world. But when they empathize, the horns and fangs they see among the "orthodox" start to disappear. They see more rationality and less blind prejudice. Conservatives would like to see their opponents as self-absorbed, dominated by appetitive urges, pseudo-Christian at best. But when they empathize, they are able to see people who genuinely love and want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and who don't cross their fingers when they say the creeds. Just this past week, two of the more outspoken "progressive" members of the HoB/D listerv copped to being bona fide tongue-speaking slain-in-the-Spirit charismatics. They are both definitely my "opponents," but empathy makes it pretty difficult for me to say I don't want to be in the same church with anyone who can say "Jesus is Lord" and mean it.
Empathy makes reconciliation possible, and reconciliation pleases God. I can't really add to that.
I realize, however, that many consider the time for reconciliation to have passed us by, and that what we (however one understands "we") are called to do now us press on toward certain and total victory. And this leads me to my third and final point about empathy: Empathy is strategically invaluable. One of the more memorable scenes from the film Patton has the general looking through his binoculars on a North African battlefield where the combatants on both sides are in tanks. His German opponent is the brilliant tank warfare tactician Erwin Rommel, who was such an expert that he had actually authored a book on the subject. In this North African venue, however, Patton's forces are on the verge of victory. The general puts down his field glasses, smiles, and mutters to himself, "Rommel, you son of a bitch, I read your book!" Patton had empathized with his opponent, gotten inside Rommel's head, and his ability to do that effectively was what led to an important Allied victory. When police detectives are on the trail of a serial criminal, they do the same thing. They hire psychologists to teach them how to empathize with the perpetrators they are trying to collar. They're not trying to make nice with Jack the Ripper; they're trying to bring him down. And they realize that disciplining themselves to see the world through Jack's eyes is only going to help them do so more effectively. But how much empathy do we see at Stand Firm and Jake's Place? Trace amounts, at most. It's so much easier to take cheap shots and elicit high-fives from our own teammates.
So I invite everyone in the fray to empathize. If not for the sake of reconciliation, at least do it because it's smart. Seek first to understand before being understood. It may not be as much fun as hurling grenades, but wherever you want to go, it will get you there more quickly.