January 20, 2017
You aren’t here yet, and I’m not sure what your voice will sound like. But today is an important day in history.
There are a lot of words in our language that have no particular bend to them. “Important.” “History.” “Surprise.” All of these words are, technically speaking, agnostic of “goodness” or “badness.”
And today is an important day in history, where many people realized the result of a big surprise.
Last year, about a month after you were conceived, Donald Trump was elected president. Today was his inauguration. We saw the peaceful transition of power - watched the Obama family wave their final goodbye, and the signing of the first presidential orders by the 45th president.
This letter isn’t here to steer you towards or away from liking Donald Trump; that’s your decision, and ultimately you probably won’t have much of an opinion about him for a long time.
Instead, I want to give you some words and thoughts to consider. By the time this president leaves office, you almost certainly will be between 4 and 8 years old. You will have heard his voice.
You will likely be affected by his presidency for years to come, perhaps for your whole life. You’ll hear about him well beyond his term in office.
I’m not going to steer you towards or away from Donald Trump. I’m here to teach you about empathy. About perspective. To help you find a lens that views the world through what it could be, not what it is today.
A lof of the time, people in your country will use their own situation to make decisions. You will, too. We all do this - it’s human instinct to protect ourselves, our families.
My bills, my taxes, my pain. My neighborhood, my city, my beliefs. My agenda, my family.
These are the things we value intrinsically, without being told we should, because we are trained by our own pain and pleasure. We want to be like our friends. Basic psychology says that being different from those we are in community with feels similar to pain.
This is no different from animals. Animals protect their own. They protect their space, their domain. It’s survival.
But as we evolve - as we learn how to survive better, we also have a newfound sense of perspective and awareness. We learn about empathy. You may have heard this word before, but for the sake of this letter, we’ll use the definition of “understanding and caring about the situations and perspectives of people other than yourself.”
Empathy isn’t something we stumble upon - it is something we practice. It’s hard work.
Empathy gets really hard when you encounter someone you disagree with. Especially if those same people are those you care about. Perhaps the hardest people to practice empathy for, though, are those that you dislike, disagree with, who are very different from you in every way.
Liam, you have a perpetual license to agree AND disagree with me. And with anyone else you encounter. It’s one of the fundamental parts of being human - your own path-finding.
My hope for you, Liam, is to remember that you are just as vulnerable as the next person to elevate your own concerns, survival, and pain above others. To elevate your beliefs. You may have the tendency to hold those beliefs over others’ heads, even - imperialism certainly started somewhere.
But keep in mind, son - just because something goes well for you does not mean that thing is good for everyone. Just because your taxes decrease doesn’t mean someone else isn’t left out in the cold. Just because you are doing well, doesn’t mean your neighbor is doing well.
When you get awarded the job, someone else is left unemployed.
When you win the game, the other team experiences loss.
When your country wins a war, there are always casualties.
Beyond these obvious realities, not everyone has the same experience. Not everyone is born into the same situation.
You, Liam, are extremely privileged. In this place in history, you have been born with the statistics skewed in your favor. Being a white male, for example, statistically makes you more likely to have earning power. Your mother and I will take care of you, and we work hard; you won’t likely experience major poverty. You won’t see significant violence in your neighborhood, and you will be around people who invest in your future and your welfare.
This isn’t true for everyone. While everyone has equal rights, and everyone has technical opportunity based on legalities, not everyone will have access to those opportunities. Not everyone is willing to recognize those rights fully, and sometimes those rights are thwarted by the actions of others.
No system is perfect. The market isn’t perfect, and neither are the suggestions for how to fix it. At this point in history, our income gap is large. Our national debt is insane. We have a lot of broken stuff laying around, and unfortunately just as with war, there are casualties.
You may have a friend one day who doesn’t have the same privilege as you. You may work with people who are paid unequally to you. You may encounter someone who has experienced hate, or poverty, or violence, their entire lives. They may experience crippling debt as a result of medical problems. Perhaps they have a mental disposition that handicaps their employability. Or maybe they simply have a different belief system than you have.
Do not let anyone fool you: these people do not have the same life that you have, and treating them as if they do is nothing short of living a lie.
As a side note, many people do live this lie. Perhaps not intentionally, but rather because they don’t think to confront these realities. Sometimes they are simply blinded by their culture. It’s important to recognize that you, too, will have blind spots that you don’t even realize. Always be humble and recognize this fallibility of your own perspective.
My prayer is that you don’t ignore this disparity between you and those around you, and equally that you don’t seek to coerce them into conforming to your way of life. Instead, I pray that you develop perspective, and breed empathy. To open your eyes and see people how Christ would see them, in the light of their suffering rather than in the light of your own survival and benefit.
Remember that empathy is a marker of maturity. Develop a worldview that takes into account the realities of others’ experiences. To understand and work on behalf of others as well as yourself.
I love you, son, and I believe you will keep your heart, mind, and eyes open to what is happening for your neighbor as much as for yourself.
Written by Jonathan Cutrell, engineer and podcast host amongst other things. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.