Empathy - the capacity to experience the distress of others as though it were your own - is the essence of the teachings of Christ, whose birth we honor next week.
Last month, watching Ken Burns' TV documentary on the 1930s Dust Bowl, I was struck by the plight and helplessness of those whose lives were devastated by conditions over which they had no control - severe drought and gale-force winds. What was even more distressing was the lack of empathy from the rest of the country.
After years of hard work breaking the land, these homesteaders were harvesting crops and paying down their mortgages, when suddenly they were hit by an unbroken succession of crop failures, coupled with the Great Depression and the resulting collapse of prices for what little they were able to harvest.
Financial ruin drove more than 2 million people out of their homes and off their land, facing them with starvation and producing the largest mass migration in our history.
The initial reaction of Congress was to ignore their plight, saying it was not government's role and that it was the responsibility of the victims to work things out. Congress finally woke up to the fact that people were starving, and enacted relief measures to help them.
About 200,000 migrated to California looking for jobs, unfortunately at the height of the Depression when jobs were scarce everywhere, and were looked upon about as favorably as a plague of locusts. Ostracized by the locals and called by the derogatory epithet "Okies," whole families had no choice but to take migratory field laborer jobs paying as little as $1 a day for back-breaking tasks, and living under deplorable conditions in make-shift shelters without adequate water or sanitation. No empathy there.
Now fast forward to the 2008 Recession, and the resultant loss of jobs, mortgage foreclosures, homelessness and dependence on unemployment insurance. Millions have been able to find only low-paying, largely part-time jobs and have been forced to resort to food stamps to feed their children.
There is an all too prevalent attitude of blaming the unemployed and homeless for their misfortune and dependency.
It is true that many of them took out mortgages that they
just could not afford, but in a time of rapidly escalating housing prices, many were desperate to buy a house before the price got even further out of
their reach. And in many cases, federal agents and corrupt bankers (who were in the business of turning a quick profit by bundling and selling the mortgages to unsuspecting investors) were encouraging people to go into mortgages that were over their heads.
Here there is a parallel with the people who homesteaded during what became the Dust Bowl and took out mortgages to build homes on their land. That was an unusually wet period in the normally dry high plains, and they were encouraged by the government to take the plunge because it was a permanent climate change that would allow them to prosper on bountiful wheat harvests.
They were told "rain follows the plow," that cultivating the land would attract rainfall. But then came the drought and those poor unfortunates were left destitute.
In both the Dust Bowl and the recession of today we are currently trying to dig our way out of, it is heartless to lay the blame on those who have been the victims of events over which they had no control.
In one case it was the combination of an environmental catastrophe and the collapse of grain prices in the worst depression in our country's history, and in the other it is corrupt banking practices that brought down the economy, costing millions of people their jobs and devaluing the investment everyone had made in their homes, both making families homeless.
Sure, there are always a few who will take advantage of the system to avoid working, but by far the vast majority are hard-working people who had been paying their way, but are now emotionally devastated by the turn of events that has left them in financial distress.
It is easy for those who have been lucky enough not to have their jobs disappear overnight, who have a comfortable home they can afford to heat, and don't have to wonder where their next meal is coming from, to ignore, or even criticize, those who are less fortunate.
In the spirit of Christmas, we should all make empathy for those less fortunate a lasting part of our lives.
- "As I See It" appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.