MICHAEL BUGEJA, IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH
In the past few years people have weathered a tsunami of negative emotions, triggered by political strife, economic hardship and global pandemic.
How many have you experienced in the list below?
Social media spread those emotions among the populace. The Brookings Institution used Twitter data to document the fear, anger and disgust that follows after mass shootings. “Rage,” title of a 2020 book by Bob Woodward, became synonymous with divisive politics. Then there was the Jan. 6 insurrection. We are annoyed by some 150 million robocalls each month. Curfews, closures and lockdowns due to COVID-19 spawned worldwide sadness, loneliness and melancholy.
As we aright ourselves economically and, perhaps, politically, it may be time to reacquaint ourselves with high moral principles: forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, empathy and grace.
Those emotions are associated with consciousness and conscience, terms often used interchangeably but that have distinct philosophical definitions:
- Consciousness: A sense of awareness, involving how our interactions affect or influence others and ourselves. By expanding our perception, we can foresee consequences of our actions before taking them and minimize harm.
- Conscience: An intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, involving how we choose to live among and view others. It is a tiny voice inside us, informing us about what to do and avoid and when and how to act under pressure.
We have much to forgive as individuals and as a country. According to an NPR report, political polarization has reached a peak. A recent survey indicates nearly 80% of Americans have only a few friends, or none at all, across the political aisle.
Forgiveness involves a conscious decision to let go feelings of anger against a person, thing or group that has caused harm, whether or not the other is worthy of it. Once you opt to forgive, the conscience is uplifted, along with your spirit.
America has exceeded 611,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Worse, hundreds of thousands of those died alone without family because of fear of infection. The Biden administration is paying up to $9,000 for each person who died of coronavirus at an estimated cost of billions of dollars.
While some may argue about cost, the gesture symbolizes the conscience of a nation. As we end social distancing, perhaps we can express sympathy anew to surviving families and friends.
Compassion is a response to suffering. As happens with sympathy, the conscience feels the plight of others. Now, however, consciousness kicks in, sparking the desire to do something and ease the physical or spiritual pain.
An article in the Lancet titled “Compassion in a Time of COVID-19,” states that people are motivated to act “because the phenomena we observe are unjust, not worthy of the world we would like to live in.”
Empathy unifies us in times of crisis. The conscience grasps that we are fellow travelers in a shared world regardless of our nationality, sex, race or social class.
According to Forbes Magazine, “empathy is our desire and willingness to see as others see and to feel as they feel” and “is the single most important leadership skill that outshines all others.”
Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, is regarded by many as our country’s first celebrity. The National Endowment for the Humanities notes that her qualities of “empathy, warmth, and courteous consideration account for both her enduring fame and her historical legacy.”
When the British burned the White House in the War of 1812, she gave instructions to rescue the portrait of George Washington, concerned what the enemy would do with it if the painting ever fell into their hands.
The highest ethical value is grace. The emotion raises consciousness and deepens conscience, inducing insight into the human condition.
Grace incorporates forgiveness, sympathy, compassion and empathy in one transcendent act.
Unfortunately, many never experience grace, but those who have might recall a time of crisis, when something happened, distorting awareness and chilling conscience. A person feels lost, confused. Abandoned. Finally, they go to a parent or partner, fearing rebuke. They confess an act or thought, only to have the other reach out in loving embrace, acknowledging the human condition.
We are a fallen species, perhaps, but worthy of redemption.
The power of grace is transformative and often at the heart of great literary works, such as Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
We’ll end with an excerpt from that work, which promises “the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from Limbo to God.”
That is grace. May we all experience or remember it as we emerge from isolation and interact with each other again.
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Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.” MORE FROM AUTHOR