Thursday, September 22, 2016

What Shall We Do Now?

               What Shall We Do Now?
                 by Shirley Rickett
               July 31, 2016, UUFHC   

     Let’s talk about speech.  About what we say, how we say it, when we say it, and the other half of that, listening. I’m going to attempt to weave an essay by Phillip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Washington Post with some of the text of President Obama’s speech at the Dallas Memorial for the five fallen policemen.
     The time frame for this goes back to July 12th when we had gone through a month of violence.  Since that time the terrible attack in Nice has happened, an attempted coup in Turkey took place, and more troops were commissioned to Iraq.  Remember Orlando?  Forty-nine killed, fifty injured. In Louisiana a black man was held down by police and ultimately shot, and in Minnesota, another black man was shot with his girlfriend in the front seat of a car and four-year-old in the backseat. And now we have Nice, France and a 19-ton truck.
        Kinnicott talks first about empathy in his essay.   He says, “If we can’t empathize across lines of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, then there’s no hope of preserving democratic governance. Before this day is over you will have dozens of encounters with people who disagree with you, and the vast majority of those encounters will be amiable,” and later he says, “It is difficult to persuade anyone to change his or her mind about political, ethical or religious matters; it is virtually impossible to persuade a stranger to change his or her mind about anything. You may shame someone into silence for a while, but you will not change their heart.  It is possible to transform the way people think, but this takes years, or decades, and it requires love.”
     So what shall we do now? 
     President Obama found himself in one more church, one more memorial, with the job of speaking to violence and death, to more than one audience.  Like Lawrence O’Donnell, I believe that speech is something we have not heard and may never hear again, although I would go further.  The structure and performance of the presentation, (half-sermon, half-speech some say) was profound. It is difficult enough to focus a speech on one audience and keep people engaged, but the President spoke to at least three audiences:  the bereaved families of the policemen, the bereaved families of the most recent African Americans killed by police, and local and national audiences.
     “You may shame someone into silence for a while, but you will not change their heart.” That’s Killicott.  The President spoke of the heart also.  Late in his speech this is what he said:
“Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?
     Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?  And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.  I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt.  I’ve been to too many of these things.  I’ve seen too many families go through this.  But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel.  I will give you a new heart, the Lord says, and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
     “That’s what we must pray for, each of us:  a new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens. That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days.  That’s what we must sustain.”
     Empathy. What both Killicott and the President are saying we need empathy.
     Empathy implies more than feeling.  Miss Hester, my fifth grade teacher, once taught us the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you feel sad for someone else.  A grandmother dies and your friend was very close to her.  You see your friend sad and you feel sad for what your friend is feeling.  However, empathy is different.  You become involved with the loss, the suffering of another friend, or someone you never met.  So you make a card, (or a protest sign) and your mother bakes cookies and you go to their house after the funeral and try to comfort your friend and the family. And you tell your friend how you felt when your beloved uncle died.
     Empathy can work on another level, too, said Miss Hester.  You go to a concert and sit through a piano concerto. You play the piano yourself and as the music rises from the keyboard your hands move on your lap and the music reaches a crescendo and the audience rises as one at the finish.  As you go home, you realize your fingers and hands are tired. You were so lost in the music and the playing that your own hands were moving and you weren’t aware of this. Part of the enjoyment and appreciation of art involves empathy.

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