Ky. Voices: Power of empathy to change our lives

By Richard Dawahare

Republican Senate President David Williams did something that runs directly counter to his conservative core: He spoke in favor of a statewide smoking ban.

"Having sat with my father and heard his last gasp because he was a 30-year smoker ... I don't think secondhand smoke and smoking are a joke; it is a workplace (safety) issue," Williams said at the Kentucky Press Association gubernatorial candidate forum.

Diehard conservative ideologues are fuming, yet Williams' own experience with his father undoubtedly opened his heart to the toll of tobacco addiction and by extension the harm to others through secondhand smoke. Williams' direct exposure to suffering arouses within him the desire to put the welfare of people ahead of rigid ideology.

Most important, the cause (banning smoking in public places) would be no less worthy had Williams not had this exposure.

If his father had never smoked, it is quite possible Williams would have joined his conservative brethren in opposing the use of government in this way, putting the ideology of small, limited government ahead of the public interest.

The cause would remain as just and necessary as it is now, but without his support. Instead, his empathy enables him to see the folly of inaction.

Such is the power of empathy. We see over and over again the progress in our world borne of simple human empathy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's polio humbled and sensitized him to the sufferings of all humans, no matter the source. It made him see that collective action through the United States government could improve the lives of the aged, the infirm, the disabled and the unemployed — the poor in body, mind and spirit.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney's having a lesbian daughter surely inspires his support for gay marriage. Closer to home, my good friend Mike DiGiuro, father of slain University of Kentucky player Trent DiGiuro, may be conservative politically, but it his personal tragedy that enlightens his understanding of the need to take guns used in crimes off the street.

Empathy, the figurative "putting ourselves in the shoes of another" leads to more understanding and takes us closer to truth. That truth helps dispel the fears and falsities of our previously hard-held ideals and leads to progress, not only for ourselves, but when experienced on a universal scale, for the world as a whole.

This begs two further questions. First, on what other issues might we adjust our viewpoint based on personal experience? Perhaps we know a good friend who, try as they might, cannot get a job and whose unemployment benefits expired. Might we then ask Congress to extend them?

Maybe you lose your health insurance and suffer an illness for which you can't get treatment. Surely then, the wisdom of a single-payer, universal health care system to replace the for-profit private insurance middle man would come shining through.

And maybe as you toured Egypt, you met a commoner yearning to be free from the tyranny of a dictatorship kept in power by the country you call home.

Might you feel at least a little uneasy about American policies that sometimes contradict our own foundational values of freedom and democracy?

The second question is this: Why must any of us wait for a personal experience? Why not, in the interest of reaching a higher truth and a better understanding, force ourselves to imagine being in the opposite position?

No matter the issue, would we not come nearer the truth and thus do more justice by actively imagining ourselves as "the other"?

Feel the suffering. Then see the relief that a people united in truth, and with faith in its values, can bring. David Williams did, and we may all breathe easier because of it.

Richard Dawahare is a Lexington attorney.