Empathy trumps fear as winter approaches

Michael GentileThis holiday season, our ever-thinning breaths come not only with cheers of merriment and frozen exhausts of fog, but also, unfortunately, with dampers of fear. As tanks file along borders and soldiers station amidst our cities, we carry on the best we can, but each day stepping a little more softly so as to not plunge through the wrong patch of ice. Such submergence is all too common today, and our faith in the dexterity of our surface wavers increasingly — and ironically — as the winter wears on; as our breath grow heavier, our spirits colder.


Joe Barney/ CC BY 2.0 If our empathetic sun can successfully peel back the clouds, we can rightfully embrace our December.

However, as fear stagnates certain caves of our thought, it fuels others, burning collateral holes in our perspective through which we pigeonhole our vision and lunge for sustaining warmth. In this sense, fear is the stove top upon which hate cooks and love explodes into unrecognizable bits, like a closed metal can. At this point, we must remember that it is our choice to ignite the burners. We elect to fear.

If the dish that fear offers is so severe, the decision to fear must have certain payoffs that supply it with rationale. Today, we use fear to narrow our misunderstanding. When things go south, we look up to a seemingly endless sky and hopelessly scour its infinitum for explanations. Such a search brings great distress and we panic before our limited capacities. To limit such panic, we create clouds of fear to cover up some of the sky’s expanse and to seemingly bring our ceiling closer toward us. We shrink our focus and, thus, enlarge ourselves. Fear provides explanations that comfort rather than confound.

Though an understandable temptation, these clouds partition our sky. Once a smooth and comprehensive symbol of connectedness, the sky begins to peer out differently for all; some sky is never seen. Similarly, as fear overcomes man, empathy fades. We lose our ability to see and connect with one another, to embody the emotions of our peers and find strength through solidarity. We cling to what we can readily see and shiver at the notion of lifting a finger; we commit to what seems sturdiest. Worst of all, we forget how beautifully that blue canvas boomed overhead when the sun was shining and times were peaceful.

I do not wish to plug a political opinion, but to briefly enliven the concept with an example: that of the plight of the Syrian refugees. In the wake of recent extremist attacks, the West logically wishes to tighten its belt. We lock down in fear; we see our own perspective most clearly and lose the refugees’ behind the clouds. However, people are dying behind those clouds. Each day, people who did not choose war attempt to escape it, to scurry away from bombs that fall like rain and oppression that chills their humanity like winter winds. They face no perfect option but nonetheless strive for the most basic: survival.

Regardless of what socioeconomic or international repercussions their pursuit of survival may warrant, such an essential perspective must not be blotted out by fear. Decisions made without clarity of mind and thoroughness of consideration are unfair decisions, even if the same decision would be made under perfectly blue skies. All such dysfunction starts with our acceptance of fear. We must resist terror and trepidation; we must not tear at the sight of the sun.

By overcoming fear, we replace its comfort with that of empathy. Instead of seeking understanding of the world by shrinking it, we share the load. We mold our perspective to that of others and thus cover far more sky than we could by independently trying to fit our round pegs into everyone else’s square holes. Less clashing results, and less people are left out. In the end, we all look at the same sky. Instead of staying in the frame, we are free to see the big picture.

If our empathetic sun can successfully peel back the clouds and once again define our natural unity, we can rightfully embrace our December. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, the only thing we have to fear would fall by virtue of circularity, and evil would lose not only its purpose but also its source.

If humanity could grow accustomed to valuing its actions through the lenses of others, by tapping into their deepest reactionary emotions and ideals, the misunderstood benefit of doing evil would cease and thus no longer divert the human mind away from the goodness we can achieve as one. Even more critically to our current situation, one evil would no longer fuel the next. The fearful stove top would not burn long enough to destroy love. Instead, love would roast like chestnuts on an open fire and warmth would steam through our pores.

As you did as a kid, expel all fear this holiday season. Do not succumb to the power it can have over an individual person. Instead, will faith in your fellow men and women. Huddle for warmth and cherish the truth that we are not intended to live alone. Let your breath loose into the night air and leave your fingerprint not to stand alone, but to combine with the signatures of others to craft a seamless mosaic of mankind gliding according to design. When fear is absolved entirely, the finished product should resemble the stars overhead.

One response to “Empathy trumps fear as winter approaches

  1. Idealism is the gift of youth. Realism and pragmatism come with age and experience. In truth, I don’t think there has ever been a time in human history “when the sun was shining and times were peaceful.” War and conflict are the human condition. We can always strive to improve, to rise above, to fight for a better world for future generations; but freedom is not free and peace is always tenuous.

    With one notable (and deeply shameful) exception, most Americans are descendants of people who chose to leave their homelands and abandon their native languages, cultures, and traditions to become part of the “melting pot” that is American culture…because they wanted a better future for themselves and their children…because they wanted to live in a country where their future wasn’t predicated upon the circumstances of their birth.

    We are correct to be concerned about anyone coming into our country. We have the right to control who comes here to visit, to study, to work, to live, or to immigrate. Our government has an obligation to keep the homeland safe.

    I don’t think your generation can understand how foreign the concept of “homeland” is to your parents’ generation. I don’t think you understand how much American life has changed since September 11, 2001. When I was your age, the sight of police officers armed with semi-automatic weapons accompanied by a bomb-sniffing dog at Penn Station would have terrified me. Now, I find it comforting.

    That being said, I welcome any immigrant who has been properly vetted and wants to join us in the “melting pot”. I have deep concerns about immigrant groups that want to live separately within our borders. I can point to separatist movements all over the world, including in our neighbor to the north, to illustrate the myriad reasons why my concern is valid. America only works if newcomers assimilate. The great European experiment in “multiculturalism” has failed.

    The vast majority of Syrian refugees want to stay “Syrian” and return to Syria when their civil war is over. Some of them (the Christians and Yazidis, in particular) may never be able to return. It remains to be seen if the people of Syria and the larger Middle East are capable of self-governance in a democracy. Ethnic and sectarian hatreds go back thousands of years. There’s a reason despots ruled in Libya and Iraq. There’s a reason why Assad has retained power. There’s a reason Jordan has a king and the House of Saud controls Saudi Arabia. Colonialism and western interference didn’t help, but the problems existed within these communities long before.

    It strikes me as a peculiar form of American hegemony to think that everyone wants to come to America and leave everything they know and love behind. Most people do not. And, if certain groups want to immigrate to the US and retain their way of life completely (including instituting sharia law), they should stay where they are.


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