What to make of Vice President Biden? Sometimes he is gaffe-prone comic relief. Sometimes he is the possessor of the worst geopolitical judgment in Washington — as when he opposed the Osama bin Laden raid or advocated the partition of Iraq. And sometimes he seems to be the last genuine human being in American politics.
This peculiar humanness was on display just before Memorial Day, when Biden spoke to a group of mourning military family members. He recalled the deaths of his wife and daughter in an auto accident in 1972 — the horrible phone call, his anger at God, the sudden ambushes of grief. “Just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ ” he said, “you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night.”
“For the first time in my life,” Biden continued, “I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide.” But he also recounted marking his worst days on a calendar, and finding over time that they grew further and further apart. “There will come a day — I promise you, and your parents as well — when the thought of your son or daughter, of your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen.”
This advice, brought back from the far side of loss, is evidence of empathy, the ability to identify with the emotions of others. It is a virtue with a biological basis. While displaying empathy for others, people employ the same neural circuits they use when considering themselves. It is the bridge between the first person and third person, a bridge washed out in people with antisocial personality disorders.
The political role of empathy sometimes comes in for criticism, particularly among conservatives. “I feel your pain” smacks of too much Clinton, too much Oprah. Empathy is dismissed as a source of naive, counterproductive public policy, which it can be.
But critics of such sentiments run headlong into the example of Abraham Lincoln, whom his contemporaries described as having an unusual talent for empathy. His hatred of slavery can be traced to early experiences of seeing people shackled in irons, which caused a visceral reaction. “That sight was a continued torment to me,” Lincoln wrote, “and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave border. . . . I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”
Lincoln also managed to feel empathy for soldiers facing execution for desertion, for his Southern opponents and for families bearing the cost of the Civil War. His letter to Fanny McCullough, who had lost her father in combat, is a model of empathy:
“In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. . . . You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. . . . The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.”
Empathy is a private and a public virtue, the trait of a friend and a leader. The ability to identify with the suffering of others can inspire sacrifice on their behalf. It is a common characteristic, for example, of dissidents, who are offended and angered by unearned suffering around them. Empathy cultivates a commitment to justice.
Public empathy also expands the boundaries of a community. People in grief and need benefit from the assurance that their difficult journey is shared. When the vice president owns to thoughts of suicide at age 30, it means something to the more than 8 million Americans who seriously consider suicide each year and to the more than 1 million who attempt it. Among adults 25 to 34, it is the second-leading cause of death. For the severely depressed, isolation and stigma can be deadly. Joe Biden has diminished both.
Empathy in the absence of judgment can be hazardous. But our public life would benefit from more of each.