Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Lessons from Lincoln

TIME magazine’s fabulous cover section about Abraham Lincoln stole an hour and a half of my day the other day. I could not put it down. From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s piece on Lincoln’s genius to Barack Obama’s tribute to Lincoln’s impact on his life, the series of articles weaves a rich tapestry of a man whose true character is still being discovered. It’s the July 4 issue; if you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend it.

The Goodwin piece talked about Lincoln’s empathy.

Perhaps the most important of his emotional abilities was empathy—the gift of putting himself in the place of others, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. … Unusual among antislavery orators in the 1850s, Lincoln sought to comprehend the Southerners’ position through empathy rather than castigate slave owners as corrupt and un-Christian men. He argued, ‘They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.’ … In the largest sense, Lincoln’s empathy allowed him to absorb the sorrows and hopes of his countrymen, to sense their shifting moods so he could shape and mold their opinion with the right words and the right deeds at the right time.

There’s also a fascinating piece by John Stauffer about Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass. This piece revealed some facts that surprised me—Lincoln, as a product of his day, did exhibit some prejudice against the Negro. For example, he felt whites and blacks were too different to live close to each other, and urged many blacks to return to Africa. Yet the respect shown to Douglass in their dealings showed that when it came to individuals, Lincoln saw the man not the skin.

Empathy juxtaposed with prejudice. This has made me examine myself to see where I fall on that scale. If a great man like Lincoln had prejudice to overcome, surely I could be more alert to it in my own thought. Am I racist? Sexist? Do I judge people by their appearance? It would be naïve and not terribly self-aware if I claimed an uncategorical “no.” So my prayer has become, Reveal this to me Lord, so I can overcome it. Reveal the seeds of stereotyping in my own thought so I can uproot them.

Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.

I may be alert to the more obvious forms of stereotyping, but I have to watch that others don’t take root. In recent years, I’ve read about a growing prejudice toward those who are overweight. I saw evidence of snap judgments about Latinos, Asians or Middle Easterners both when I lived in Los Angeles and here in New England. And one of the last bastions of bigotry is that directed toward homosexuals.

Is empathy the solution? I do find that when I empathize, I’m less likely to pre-judge. Empathy could be the first stepping stone to seeing each person not by their label, but as an individual person, with the same rich life experience and potential that I have. My small step toward empathy is to listen when I meet someone new to find that connecting point where appearances melt and the true person is revealed.

Perhaps the best wisdom came from the one-on-one Sunday School class I “taught” this week—really, they teach me. The student’s clarity on this issue was a testament to his generation. His basic point: We’re all children of God. When we see each person as a fellow child of God first, we can stem the tide of prejudice.

Lincoln's influence continues. I’m watching my own thought more deeply, watching for God to reveal what I need to know. Watch with me today.


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1 Comments:

At 8/05/2005 02:15:00 AM, Blogger karen gsteiger said...

I just adore Barack Obama...I was happy to cast a vote for him! I think, given time, he's going to go great things. I have never seen him less than 100% classy, even when the Illinois election was becoming predictably ugly...

Lincoln's one of my personal heroes too. I think every state in the Midwest tries to claim him as their own...

--karen

--karen

 

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