My wife and I often watch the nightly television news together. We see the frequent reports of young men and women from poor countries drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in their desperate attempts to reach Europe, South Americans fleeing gang violence and poverty in their home countries to seek shelter and economic opportunities in America, and Black youth in America’s inner cities facing similarly dire conditions in their daily lives. With this endless stream of heartbreaking stories, we are constantly reminded of the extremely high levels of suffering in the world.
These global problems are so massive in scale that just thinking about them can be quite overwhelming. Although I am realistic enough to know that no individual or country could ever have enough power and resources to change the world into what it should ideally be, my wife’s default reaction to every single one of the human tragedies we hear about has given me food for thought. I have become convinced that the kind of empathy she shows could be a crucial key to unlocking some of the solutions that are so critically needed. That is, if more of us conditioned ourselves to always think in such compassionate terms.
Our son turned 21 this spring. Throughout his teenage years, whenever my wife heard about a young man in any type of distress, or one who died tragically, whether at the hands of the police or through gang violence, out of her mouth came the following words: “This could easily be my son. I can’t imagine what this young man’s family must be going through now.” Her anxiety has only heightened, now that our son is in college and outside her immediate zone of protection.
After hearing my wife’s words of empathy hundreds of times over the last several years, I began to wonder: What if all of us used them to guide our everyday decisions and actions?
At the root of much of human suffering are the twin evils of greed and corruption. A recent newspaper reportindicated that in the U.S., unscrupulous people stole as much as $280 billion of the COVID-19 relief funding provided by the government. While none of us can claim to be saints, there are some sins that anyone with any iota of decency must know not to commit. At a time when thousands of people were dying every day, often alone, and millions of others had either lost their jobs or been forced to shut down their businesses, it is mindboggling that these fraudsters saw nothing wrong with depriving their needy compatriots of the resources the government had provided to support them.
In every country from which desperate people flee, greed and corruption are the dominant factors that cause economic collapse, breakdown of security, and the general dysfunction that make those places unlivable. Ironically, in almost every society, the people who steal on such a massive scale tend to be those who already have the means to live relatively comfortably. They forget—or don’t care—that their excessive grabbing of resources robs other people of the opportunity to have any life at all.
In 2019, widespread frustration with entrenched corruption was what led ordinary Ukrainians to vote out the oligarchs who had ruled the country since its independence in 1991. Ukrainians elected Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian with no political experience, as president. Zelenskyy’s main campaign promise was to root out corruption from Ukrainian society. In his inaugural address as president, he asked members of his new administration and the civil service not to hang his portrait on their office walls. Instead, he said: “Hang pictures of your children. And before you make any decision, look into their eyes.”
That was a profound statement of empathy. President Zelenskyy essentially asked his government officials to keep in mind that their own children could, potentially, be the victims of any adverse effects of bad decisions they made. The world would be a much better place if people in positions of power everywhere made this a guiding principle.
Biological impulses work the same in all humans, whether we are rich or poor, powerful or powerless. Poor and powerless people love their children as intensely as the rich and powerful do theirs. As we all go about our daily lives, our thoughts and actions should constantly be guided by the fact that there are no guarantees in life. Any of us might be at the top today, but we could easily slip and fall down the ladder tomorrow. Or, any one of us could be here today but gone forever tomorrow. And then, our sons and daughters would be at the mercy of the world. Other people’s greed and corruption could end up making our beloved but vulnerable children’s lives utterly miserable.
These thoughts should motivate each of us to be a little less greedy and corrupt. We should all learn to think like protective mothers.