1. Our Present-Day Disease

I think we have a disease in this country called “We’ll pass a law” which manifests itself in any form when we say laws solve problems.

And it goes like this:

  • Something happens
  • Whoever was affected says “that was terrible”
  • Someone adds “and that should never happen again”
  • A politician says to his self or her self, “I want to do something”
  • Politician thinks, “I don’t know how to fix or undo what happened, but I could propose a law that bans that happening from happening again”
  • Politician repeats the conversation with emphasis, “That was terrible. It should never happen again”
  • Politician adds, “Laws solve problems. We’ll pass a new law…”
  • Politician also makes this insane guarantee “…so that happening never happens again”
  • Everyone who hears this thinks nothing of it because this is our disease. We automatically listen for someone to suggest a new law in the face of controversy or tragedy (Remember this? “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”)
  • People applaud politician for being “grounded” and “standing for something” and “helpful,” while doing little or nothing on their own to materially restore the lives of those affected by the happening (remember, he/she said “I don’t know how to fix or undo what happened”)
  • People tweet and like Facebook statuses and gossip with their neighbors about the happening and the glorious future that awaits an Enlightened Earth where the happening is banned from happening again, whether through sudden, magical compliance by all mankind or a complete reversal of the probable outcomes of patterns in nature we’ve observed for millennia
  • Politician proposes law, which, as it was written in hurried fashion, includes easy-to-see suggestions such as greater punishments for people who are at the scene of the happening or restrictions on all activity that bears any resemblance to precursors of the happening

THEN what happens is this:

  • A critical mass of people shout in various media, in a grand display of empathy for the people affected (whose lives may or may not have actually been restored in the present by this point), that the law is good and they support it
  • Another critical mass of people look at the law and say to themselves, “Actually, this law does not guarantee the happening from happening again, AND it burdens a bunch of already-happenings that are net neutral or positive”
  • These people say, “We don’t support this law; we’re not certain it will do good and we’re confident it will do harm…”
  • These people don’t say, “I empathize with the people affected by the present happening and here’s what I’m doing to restore their lives”
  • The law supporters respond, “You have no empathy!”
  • Chaos
  • Political mongering
  • Pork barreling
  • Law is passed

Followed by

  • More chaos
  • Elections
  • Rinse
  • Repeat

2. The Diagnosis

So what I want to add for you this morning is that it is one thing to demonstrate empathy and restore wholeness to the life of someone affected by “a happening.” And it is whole other thing, separate and independent, to design rules and regulations that effectively enhance the future for everyone on the planet.

Recently one of the boy scouts in my troop experienced theft: his iPad Mini was stolen during a scouting activity. I was crushed when I found out.

And then I listened to people’s reactions.

  • “Terrible!”
  • “No one should have their stuff stolen!”
  • “Move scouting events to another place and time!”
  • “Make people pay!”

The thing I saw about those statements and imperatives is none of them would make any difference in having the scout deal with his experience of disappointment and regret for having lost so quickly something he was excited to have. So he and I had a conversation. I asked what it was like to lose his iPad. I said back what he said so he knew that someone understood what the moment was like for him. Then I invited him to look at what he had done that led to the outcome. He landed here:

“It was mine to be responsible for. I left it in an open space where people were present that I didn’t know. I left my iPad out of my sight for over an hour in the open place. It was gone when I returned. I can be responsible for my things in the future by keeping them with me or in closed and secure locations.”

If he hadn’t gotten to “I was irresponsible. Now I choose to be responsible,” any new rule or policy would exist parallel to him continuing to be irresponsible. And chances are good his being irresponsible would weasel its way through any new rule that I or the troop could invent, resulting again in some unfavorable happening.

After this, I did talk with other adult leaders to look at whether a new rule would be useful. And this is where we landed:

  • Scouts are responsible to keep their belongings in their sight
  • Adult leaders will verbally remind scouts to bring all their belongings with them when moving from one place to another
  • We will allow people in the building only when the person responsible for the activity the visitor will attend approves the visitor’s entry

We first dealt with having the scout restored in the matter of what happened. 

We then separately dealt with “what can we do to be responsible for creating a place that works for the intentions of our scouting program?” It wasn’t about preventing theft. Nor was it about keeping thieves out of the building. It was about us being responsible for our space and things and about respecting the building we get to use as well as the experience of others who share the building with us.

3. Spotting Symptoms

How you’ll know when you have mixed up the restoration of people together with the formation of new policy is when you say something like Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said today, according to The New York Times:

“It’s remarkable. You can’t turn a corner in the Capitol this week without meeting a family of a gun violence victim. It’s hard to say no to these families.”

“It’s hard to say no.”

If you are saying, “It’s hard to say no,” about anything, I suggest you are confusing your desire to be empathetic with your desire to create a positive future.

You want to be empathetic. Will getting a document signed in Washington actually restore a family in Connecticut or Columbine or Jonesboro or Aurora?

Will knowing that it’s generally harder for people to buy guns actually heal a heart?

Will limiting clip size bring a community to talk to one another?

By my view, none of these proposals will transform grief to gladness, anger to forgiveness, loss to wholeness, disconnection to community, or fear to love.

And in this whirl of confusion, you may begin to think your documents, selling policies and clip sizes have anything to do with what causes one human being to inflict pain and death on another. And in that cloudy false connection, you might just forget to consider what’s missing in the lives of people who carry out violent acts and what you could do to restore them.

4. My Promise

You can count on me to never ask my politicians to legislate my empathy for me.

And you can count on me contributing to conversations for new rules and policies only when people affected by any recent happening are on their way to being restored and complete.