Don Follis | Treating others with empathy, respect is our only hope

Don Follis | Treating others with empathy, respect is our only hope

With the drums already beating for the next presidential election, a pastor told me the other day he really fears the next two years. When he asked me what I thought he should do to confront his fears for the "terrible" day ahead, I said "Face it like any other spiritually-minded person — bake cookies."

Later that day on a walk I thought about the words of writer Leslie Leyland Fields who said, "The beauty of this earth reminds me what is real. And what to properly dread and fear. It is not weakness to fear. We are human, not gods, so it is right for us to fear. There are thousands of fears to choose from. And if you do not choose them, they will choose you. So, let us choose our fears well."

I cannot control politicians or pastors. I have a hard-enough time controlling my own impulses and fears. As I walked, I thought about some of the fears Leslie Leyland Fields considers worthy of choosing.

Fear an impervious heart, for starters. That's a heart that "gathers all its muscle into stone walls and safety, refusing to see, to hear, to enter into others rejoicing and sorrows." Who wants a heart that gets strength from dispassion, protection through disaffection, or contentment through ignorance?

Fear hate, especially the kind that seeps under our skin, twists our words and clouds our eyes. Fear can turn a neighbor into "a far-away stranger, turning the far-away stranger into a faceless apparition, turning every politician into a demon, and everyone who disagrees with you into an enemy."

Fear self-importance that lies in wait around every corner and soapbox. It insists on attention, the proper introductions and deference, or at least some public acknowledgment that I am, in certain ways, just a little superior to others.

Fear comfort that insists on quality — the best food, the most comfortable bed, the best car, the happiest feelings, the best spot in the exercise class, the best churches, the best retirement and certainly the easiest death.

Fear authenticity that preaches loyalty to your "true self" above loyalty to any other, and then finds that loyalty, that true self, more attractive than any other.

Fear satisfaction that wants only contentment with who we are and how we live. It wants no risk, no change, no surrendering of rights and no reduction into that to which we are entitled. And why? Well, because we are old. Or because we are middle-aged. Or because we are young. Entitlement, if we let it, can run the gamut from birth to death.

Fear end-time prophecy and despair and those clever routes to excuses that all is hopeless anyway. Besides, nothing can be done. God is sovereign. The world will probably end in this generation. Ignore the human crises and the malignant health of the planet. Camp out, like the prophet Jonah under his withering shade in the hot sun, and wait for the inevitable fiery end.

Fear patriotism and its prophets and evangelists. They say we love God best by serving our country first. You want to see national damnation? Just look at the other party. All the while we are blind to the only kingdom we are called to give our lives to.

Fear the enemy of our body and soul. This life is all there is, so don't withhold whatever you need to make you happy, free, prosperous and authentic, no matter the cost.

But many know that the Bible tells us to fear only the maker of our body and our soul. Which is to say love the maker of our body and soul. Our maker — our father, our brother, our breath, our light, our bread, our hope — is the one to fear. This the fear that dispels death and every fear not born of love. "Where God's love is, there is no fear, because God's perfect love drives out fear," reads I John 4:18.

The hate and contempt that can flow through all of us makes us ugly, threatens the fabric of our society and causes us to react with fear. But if we humble ourselves and tap into God's perfect love, we can chip away at the polarization we find everywhere we turn.

If we show civility buttressed with empathy and respect for those different from us, a door may crack open for us to step in and treat our fellow humans in the way we want to be treated by them. It really is our only hope.

Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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