I am not sure if the word empathy was in either of my parents’ vocabularies. It wasn’t the kind of word one heard growing up in my neighborhood in Houston. But my parents taught me about the importance of empathy through their words and deeds. And they made it clear that it was part of the glue that held together our family, our neighborhood, our community, and the United States itself.
My earliest memories are of times of despair and the Great Depression. Our family home was on Prince Street, on the extreme outer edge of what was the Houston of the 1930s. It was more of a big town back then, not yet really a city. We lived in the Heights neighborhood, which today is hip and gentrified, but back then our street was just a lightly graveled road. It was considered a rough, tough neighborhood, and there was only one street — a dirt street — between our house and the open country. Across that road was a large field, a creek, and beyond that a densely wooded pine forest. I thought of it as the Great American Frontier, and the truth was, in those days before interstate highways, you might have been able to find a path to walk from the end of my block to the Canadian border without seeing many, if any, other travelers.
Our house was nothing to brag about, but at least it had four sturdy walls, with two bedrooms, a small living room, a small kitchen, and one bath. My brother and I shared a bed, and my sister slept in the same room until she got a little older, when my father and uncle added a small room to the house. Across our street was a poor frame house in a state of semi-collapse. A half block down lived a family who didn’t even have a house, just a corrugated tin roof held up by four posts in the corners and one in the middle. Their floor was dirt.
This was what the United States of America was like not that long ago: a country where families struggled to live on dirt streets, with dirt floors, and little or no income to pay the grocery or medical bills.
Nobody in either of these families had a job. That was not unusual in our neighborhood during the Depression. And the families that were lucky enough to have work usually had only meager part-time jobs. A full-time job like the one my father had working the oil fields was rare and considered a blessing, no matter the pay, the hours, or the amount of backbreaking labor it entailed. This was what the United States of America was like not that long ago: a country where families struggled to live on dirt streets, with dirt floors, and little or no income to pay the grocery or medical bills. None of this was considered particularly unusual at the time. It was just the way things were.
The father of the family in the dilapidated house had lost a leg. Exactly how he’d lost it was unclear, but the prevailing belief was that it had happened after a misjudged leap from a boxcar. Riding the rails was not uncommon then as a means to get to your destination, but it was uncommonly dangerous. His condition brought a crushing change to his fortune and that of his family. Before the accident, the father had been a day laborer for hire, a man with a shovel who could dig you a ditch. But there wasn’t much demand for a one-legged ditchdigger. He had likely not gotten good medical attention after the accident, and I remember him clearly as a frail man with a bad cough. He, his wife, and their four or five children had no money. Zero. They eventually applied for some form of relief, but it came only sporadically.
The family under the tin roof had a passel of kids as well, maybe as many as six. I remember thinking how elderly the father was, although he was probably much younger than he looked. A hard life will do that to a person. For some reason this other family, despite their abject poverty, didn’t seem to qualify for the government’s new “relief” program (otherwise known as “the dole”). Perhaps they didn’t know how to fill out the paperwork. Public support was far less systematic than it is today. Around the neighborhood, this family had a reputation for often being in prayer, and as a boy I wondered how God could be so seemingly blind to such suffering.
The neighborhood tried as best it could to help these families stay alive. If we had leftovers after supper, we would walk them across the street. One of my earliest impressions was taking that short journey with my father. You might think that these families were humiliated by the offerings, but there is no dignity in being hungry. And there was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.
In life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.
Food wasn’t the only assistance we provided. One morning I watched my uncle John dig a ditch from our house across the gravel road to the ramshackle house. The family had been unable to pay their water bills, and my uncle was good with pipes. So he connected the two houses and we shared our water with them. These acts of kindness were also not unusual among neighbors. Necessity was a great motivator for innovation and empathy.
On Christmas Eve, my father and uncle pooled their money, meager though it was, and bought toys for the families living in the dilapidated house and under the tin roof. I remember a rag doll, a small wooden train, and for some reason a tambourine — why these details are so vivid I couldn’t say. We waited until after the children had gone to bed to give the gifts quietly to the parents so that when those children woke up the next morning they would not think Santa had forsaken them. That was the hope, anyway.
What sticks with me more than even that act of kindness was how my mother talked to me about it. I was an inquisitive child (perhaps not surprising considering my later path in life), and I was always asking questions. So I asked my mother why we gave those families gifts at Christmas when we ourselves didn’t have much. I remember then answering for myself: “It was because we felt sorry for them, right?”
“We do not feel sorry for them,” my mother said sternly. “We understand how they feel.” It was a lesson that is so seared in my mind, I can see her face and I can hear her tone of voice as if it were yesterday.
What my family did was not heroic. I like to think of it more as neighborly. And it was in line with a national ethos in those dark days, repeated countless times in countless communities across the country. We understood that those who were suffering weren’t lazy or lacking the desire to do better. Fate had the potential to slap any of us. In another family in our neighborhood, the father had a part-time job as a watchman. One morning a neighbor noticed that he had come home from work early, and then she saw his wife crying. When she went over to find out what had happened, she learned the man had lost his job. The news spread from neighbor to neighbor like an unwired telegraph. By the time my father came home from work, people were gathering to grieve with the unlucky family. Their house had the feeling of one mourning the death of a loved one. Everybody knew that a lost job was not likely to be replaced.
There is one other story that for me is perhaps the most resonant. It is of a boy, a few years older than I, who lived near us and had a gifted artistic sensibility. He was the kind of kid who could draw almost anything. I remember, with wonder, how he could build model airplanes out of balsa wood with perfect symmetry and not a wrinkle in the paper skins that covered them. In different circumstances, he might have grown up to show his work in galleries. He had also been a strong student and a wonderful athlete, winning all the footraces in the neighborhood and dominating sandlot football. His love for the Glenn Miller Band irked some of his neighbors, who complained about how many times he played the three records he owned. But his family was in dire economic straits, so he quit school at fifteen to start looking for a job to support them.
Those who were suffering weren’t lazy or lacking the desire to do better. Fate had the potential to slap any of us.
He never found much work other than a few projects helping out a bricklayer. What he did start to find was trouble. He began smoking and running with the wrong crowd. He started hanging out on the street corners, often late into the night. Before long he became ill with what I believe was some respiratory illness and went into the hospital. When I visited him I saw the shell of a young man, in many ways still a boy. I had looked up to him as one blessed with such talent and grace, and here he was completely defeated by a life that had once held such promise. Shortly thereafter he died. I attributed it to a broken heart and I imagine him taking his final breaths with flashes of what could have been, what might have been.
These stories of the Great Depression were not unique. They were repeated millions of times in neighborhoods all over the country.
It is perhaps not surprising that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan looked at a nation so traumatized and felt they could defeat us. Of course history turned out differently. The same generation that had been driven to such depths in the 1930s rose up to push back the forces of totalitarianism in a two-ocean global war in the 1940s. Perhaps those authoritarians, who felt no empathy for their own people or those they conquered, underestimated the strength of our empathy. Empathy builds community. Communities strengthen a country and its resolve and will to fight back. We were never as unified in national purpose as we were in those days. What had weakened us had also made us stronger.
I remember a great push to organize for civil defense, as there was great fear of a German or Japanese invasion. Almost everyone, truly everyone, regardless of age, race, or economic status, rushed to come together and help as soon as the word came out. Our neighborhood wasn’t known for organization, but this need galvanized even those you would have never expected to volunteer. We practiced blackouts and people were deputized as air raid wardens. It might seem a little silly now, but we all took this very seriously. It must be noted, of course, that we were still a segregated nation. But the war effort, including the service of African American soldiers, helped change the country in that regard as well. In 1948, President Harry Truman would desegregate the armed forces, six years before Brown v. the Board of Education ended segregation in our public schools.
Empathy makes for wise foreign and domestic policy.
Indeed, this sweep of empathy continued after the war. One of the best foreign policy efforts in American history was to help rebuild Europe and Japan. Our enemies became our friends through an acknowledgment of the common bonds of humanity. The postwar world order was built on that foundation. And when the GIs returned home, we treated them empathetically as well. The GI Bill, which sent millions of former soldiers to college and millions more to other forms of training , was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in our nation’s history, and one of the most valuable as well. Empathy makes for wise foreign and domestic policy.
When I consider the forces that have led to our greatest moments of progress, I do not think it is a surprise that a great spasm of empathetic legislation came in the midst of the Great Depression. The beginning of Social Security is the most notable example, but there were a number of other programs that aimed to bring relief and the dignity of work to a populace in desperate need. Many of these endeavors fell under the so-called alphabet agencies, the host of federal programs created by President Franklin Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression. One of the most consequential was the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which at its height employed millions of people on public works projects across the country. But there were also programs like the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), which brought electrification and other services to a particularly hard-hit area of the country; the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), which regulated the stock market and other financial exchanges; and the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), which established the minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor rules. The last three of these programs remain an example of the enduring legacy of that time. This effort was widely popular and seen as the worthy and necessary actions of a government in touch with the needs of the people it served.
The second wave of such legislation came in the 1960s, and I don’t think it is coincidental that this happened as the children of the Great Depression and World War II grew into adulthood. Efforts to improve racial justice, labor rights, anti-poverty programs, education, medical care, and many other needs began under President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and peaked with President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” The scope of the legislation from this time is still staggering: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, among others. Note that most of these laws were passed with considerable — sometimes overwhelming — bipartisan support. My generation came of age in a period marked by firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be faced with economic despair and a brutal war. We knew of no other world than one of hardship, and so we did not realize growing up how dire and anomalous the situation was. I cannot imagine there was a more conducive environment in which to learn the lessons of empathy.
Today, these kinds of empathetic programs are associated with big government bureaucracies. There are legitimate questions about the manner in which they operate, and they could probably be improved. It is undeniable that they still do good work in bringing more fairness and justice to our democracy, but the spirit of empathy with which they were created has been lost. Empathy is a deeply personal emotion. It is about the feeling one has for one’s fellow human beings. Transferring responsibilities to government is often necessary but it creates a distance between us and those who need help. And if this impulse is left unchecked, it absolves us from our own responsibility as citizens to form a more empathetic union with others.
When we live in a self-selected bubble of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others.
I worry that our nation today suffers from a deficit of empathy, and this is especially true of many in positions of national leadership. It is a phenomenon that is born from, and that exacerbates, the broader divisions tearing at our republic. We see a rising tribalism along cultural, ethnic, economic class, and geographic lines. And the responsibility for these divisions should fall more squarely on the shoulders of the powerful, those who need to be empathetic, than on those who need our empathy. When we live in a self-selected bubble of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others. Technology and social media can be tools for connecting us, but I fear these advancements are in many ways deepening and hardening the divisions between us.
Very few families escaped the wounds of the Great Depression and World War II. In the intervening decades, however, the wealthy and the powerful largely have been protected from economic, social, and military upheavals by a shield of immunity. A commonality of understanding has been lost. Where once the American experience was one of a spectrum from the rich to the poor, now we live in pockets that insulate us from others. We have more in the ranks of the extremely wealthy, many fewer in the middle economic class, and a larger pool falling farther and farther behind. So we grow more isolated and less empathetic. The threads stitching our union together begin to fray. We see others but we cannot imagine what their lives are actually like. We don’t even think we should have to bother.
Empathy is not only a personal feeling; it can be a potent force for political and social change. And thus the suppression or denial of empathy is a deliberate part of a cynical political calculus. Dividing people and stoking animosity can pave a path to power (and in this most recent election, it has). This has been well known since the time of the ancients. But these divisions inevitably come at the expense of the long-term health and welfare of the nation as a whole. We have seen many examples from our history where the economic and social needs of one group have been pitted against another’s — on immigration, labor rights, environmental protections, racial justice, and so many more. Such clashes usually do not end very well. In contrast, there have been moments where we reached out to each other as a nation, channeling what unites us rather than what separates us. It might be hard to imagine today, but there were times when the common purpose of the United States seemed to rise above pettiness and narrow self-interest.
One often finds the greatest lack of empathy in those who were born lucky. They tend to misidentify that luck as the superiority of their character. There are some notable exceptions: the incredibly successful investor Warren Buffett once speculated about what would happen if, before birth, a genie gave us the opportunity to choose the political, economic, and social system into which we would be born. “What’s the catch?” he said. “One catch — just before you emerge [from the womb] you have to go through a huge bucket with seven billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get — you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the U. S. or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world?”
It is a wonderful thought experiment that lays out a provocative case for empathy. Mr. Buffett calls his construct “the ovarian lottery.” Now, take a moment to imagine the most sanctimonious of our current national voices. Imagine those who lecture most loudly about morality and personal responsibility from the perch of privilege. Imagine those who blame the victims of discrimination and poverty. How would these men and women fare in such a lottery as Mr. Buffett outlines? What would their message be if they themselves had been born under far different circumstances? These people are in dire need of humility, a humility bathed in the refreshing waters of empathy. We can all afford to drink more from that spring as well. ●
With a famed and storied career that has spanned more than six decades, Dan Rather has earned his place as one of the world’s best-known journalists. He has interviewed every president since Eisenhower and, over that time, personally covered almost every important dateline in the United States and around the world. Rather joined CBS News in 1962. He quickly rose through the ranks, and in 1981 he assumed the position of anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News — a post he held for 24 years. His reporting across the network helped turn 60 Minutes into an institution, launched 48 Hours as an innovative newsmagazine program, and shaped countless specials and documentaries. Upon leaving CBS, Rather returned to the in-depth reporting he always loved, creating the Emmy Award–winning Dan Rather Reports on HDNet. Now, building upon that foundation, he is president and CEO of News and Guts, an independent production company he founded that specializes in high-quality nonfiction content across a range of traditional and digital distribution channels.
To learn more about What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, click here.