Culture At Large

Virtual empathy and actual comfort, from Tucson to Haiti

Paul Vander Klay

Just as the great eye of market-driven American media attention was ready to settle on Haiti for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, it was wrenched west to Tucson, Ariz., to focus on the shooting.

President Obama as eulogist in chief displayed some of the qualities he was elected for as he spoke with compassion and eloquence to comfort the victim's friends and families, celebrate the heroes and encourage the rest of us whose experience of this tragedy is more virtual and abstract. Meanwhile, the tenor of the reports from Haiti is regrettably predictable. The results of last year's massive effort launched with so much enthusiasm fail to meet our expectations.

The video by Franklin Graham and Sarah Palin from Samaritan's Purse hit me especially hard. This is a gig I used to do. The enormously selective lens flattens the complex truth into one emotional appeal for what I assume to be a very good cause. Smiles on children's faces receiving packages from the U.S. Sick patients being rescued by medical workers that look like the target group of desired benefactors. "You can be a savior for a small monthly pledge, less than what you spend for latte."

Our credentials as saviors crumble with abandoned homes remaining in Port au Prince, New Orleans, Pakistan and Detroit. As I listen to the President's pitch-perfect delivery of the speech, the occasion demanded I wrestle with my own doubts and cynicism. I wonder how much of this virtual interest and empathy isn't a result of our own narcissistic need to be a savior. Chuck De Groat on his blog describes the narcissist this way.

In his friendships, you find him boasting of his accomplishments, but rarely interested in your life or struggles. He is disconnected from his own pain, insecurity and fear. And ultimately, this is what narcissism reveals.  Manifesting in power, a lack of empathy, a sense of superiority, a cynicism about failure, a penchant to succeed, the narcissist cannot fail, in his work, in his relationships, in his friendships.  And yet, underneath his powerful and impressive exterior, he is deeply insecure.  He doesn't know this.  We can only pray he realizes it in time.  But nevertheless, it's there.  He cannot fail.  He cannot become what he despises - powerless, ashamed.

The admonishing drums of our political discourse repeat "in this we cannot fail," yet fail we do. Every failure is met with another call for renewed commitment and effort, but this approach to our own desire for mastery and perfection reinforces the delusion of our own power and our capacity to define "the good." We stand with Eve pondering the fruit, once again not knowing good and evil.

At this point in my journey I meet the core of the gospel. Is the gospel fundamentally good advice to once again engage in a cycle of self-critique and self-motivation, to try harder and better next time? That is not a bad cycle and it is one that we must engage in. Gospel, however, is good news and it goes beyond these admonitions to the record of a gift, the pledge of flesh from Creation 2.0 and the promised final gift to come. The gospel creates the context in which our failing efforts do not lead us to despair or narcissistic delusion, but are translated into our participation in the age to come.

I was thrilled that the President quoted Psalm 46 in his speech, but he seemed to use the words as mere comforting adornment. Read the whole Psalm. The locus of our hope in that Psalm is not renewed moral effort on our part but rather the presence of the maker of heaven and earth living in our midst. The man of sorrows knows ours too.  Christian hope is not a delusion of our own power ironically fueled by denial. Rather, it is energetic engagement, because the promised renewal of all things invites even our stumbling attempts at participation in the anticipated great feast of the age to come.

Image courtesy of Christina deJong, CRWRC-Haiti.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism, The Church, News & Politics, World, North America