When a Heart Is Empty

The consequences of Donald Trump’s inability to feel.

On Dec. 26, 2004, the French author Emmanuel Carrère, his girlfriend and their respective sons were vacationing at a cliff-top hotel in Sri Lanka. Their relationship was dying and, feeling out of sorts, they decided not to go down to the beachfront scuba diving lesson they’d signed up for. It was a consequential decision, for that was the morning the tsunami hit.

A family they knew was staying on the beach. That morning the grandfather, Philippe, was reading the paper while his 4-year-old granddaughter, Juliette, happily played in the wavelets nearby. Suddenly Philippe felt himself swept up by an enormous wall of black water, pretty sure he would die, certain his granddaughter already had.

In his memoir, Carrère bears witness to the days of suffering and endurance that followed the wave. When Philippe tells his daughter and son-in-law about the death of their child, Juliette’s mother, Delphine, screams. Her husband thought, “I can no longer do anything for my daughter, so I will save my wife.”

Carrère had lamented that he had always been unable to love, but in those horrific days he and his girlfriend stayed with the family, searched among the corpses, enveloped the family with compassion and practical care. He observes how at mealtime Delphine’s hand shakes as she brings a forkful of curried rice to her lips.

He is with Delphine when they come across a woman, Ruth, who was on her honeymoon and has lost track of her husband, Tom. For two days she sat outside the hospital, not eating or sleeping, convinced that if she nodded off Tom would never emerge alive from wherever he was.

“Her determination is frightening,” Carrère writes. “You can sense that she’s quite close to passing to the other side, into catatonia, living death, and Delphine and I understand that our role is to prevent this.”

Carrère’s memoir describes how a self-absorbed man is altered in crisis and develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others. The book is called “Lives Other Than My Own.”

I thought of that book this week because the sensitive perceptiveness Carrère displays is the opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, “Rage.”

Goldberg says Trump told people that he sees the war dead as “suckers” and “losers.” Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives — their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.

If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.

The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay Covid-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place.

This is not an intellectual stupidity. I imagine Trump’s I.Q. is fine. It is a moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people. It’s a stupidity that in almost pure clinical form, flows out of his inability to feel, a stupidity of the heart.

In most times and cultures, people realized that understanding a person or situation is as much an emotional process as an analytical one. In the Bible the word “to know” covers a range of activities, from having a conversation with, to having sex with, to entering into a commitment with and much else — all the different ways we come to understand each other.

St. Augustine’s theory of

  • knowledge begins with emotion.
  • Love is a focus of attention.
  • Love is a motivation to learn more about a person.
  • Love is a reverence for the image of God in each person.

Through his own failures, Trump illustrates by counterexample that the heart is the key to understanding. To accurately size up a human situation you have to project a certain quality of attention that is personal, gentle, respectful, intimate and affectionate — more moving with and feeling into than simply observing with detachment.

Carrère achieved that quality of attention after the tsunami.

Maybe I spend too much time on Twitter and in media, but I see less and less of this sort of attention in America, even amid the tragedies of 2020. Far from softening toward one another, the whole country feels even more rived, more hardened and increasingly blind to lives other than our own.

Punchiello, Eli, and Wemmicksville: Black Dots don’t Stick

Max was interested in helping children understand their value – not from the world’s perspective, but from God’s. Wemmicksville is a land created by Eli, the “God” figure of the story. He creates each Wemmick in Wemmicksville uniquely, each with its own look and personality. Each story and video is a new adventure with the citizens of Wemmicksville. Punchinello is the cent

 

Richard Rohr: The Face of the Others

Jesus taught us what God is like through his words, his actions, his very being, making it clear that “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16). If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is indeed a benevolent universe—at its very core.

The brilliant Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), said the only thing that really converts people, the ultimate moral imperative, is “the face of the other.”

.. When we receive and empathize with the face of the other (especially the suffering face), it leads to transformation of our whole being. It creates a moral demand on our heart that is far more compelling than the Ten Commandments. Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like a personal encounter can.

.. So many Christian mystics talk about seeing the divine face or falling in love with the face of Jesus. I think that’s why Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) often used the image of “mirroring” in her writings. We are mirrored not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the face we can’t give to ourselves. And, of course, the ultimate and perfect mirror is the face of God.

The early mirroring we receive from our parents is particularly important. Neuroscience now shows that the gaze between a newborn and his or her loving caretaker creates “mirror neurons” that help a person become compassionate and have empathy for others. Moreover, although none of us can demand or expect absolutely unconditional divine love from another human being, we can experience very real aspects of it. This helps us be able to imagine what God’s love is like and keeps us open to God’s love.

James Finley offers a fitting poetic image for this idea:

When God eases us out of God’s heart into the earthly plane, God searches for the place that is most like paradise, and it’s the mother’s gaze. In the mother’s gaze, she transparently sacramentalizes God’s infinite gaze of love, looking into the eyes of the infant. And when the infant looks into her eyes it is looking into God’s eyes, incarnate as her loving eyes.

When caregivers and infants gaze at each other, their brain activity increases; parts of their brains literally light up. Similarly, Finley says:

.. When God gazes at us and we gaze at God, both of us light up. God lights up in the sense of the joy of being recognized by the one that God created in his own image and likeness for the very sake of this recognition. For us it’s a moment of visceral, intimate communion or oneness that feels like homecoming. [2]

Richard Rohr Meditation: The Most Essential Thing

Love is who you are. When you don’t live according to love, you are outside of being. You’re basically not real or true to yourself. When you love, you are acting according to your deepest being, your deepest truth. You are operating according to your dignity. For a simple description of the kind of love I am talking about, let’s just use the word outflowing. .

.. John the Evangelist writes, “God is love, and whoever remains in love, remains in God and God in them” (1 John 4:16). The Judeo-Christian creation story says that we were created in the very “image and likeness” of God—who sets the highest bar for this kind of outflowing love (Genesis 1:26-27). Out of the Trinity’s generative and infinitely flowing relationship, all of creation takes form, mirroring its Creator in its deepest identity.

.. We have heard this phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what “created in the image and likeness of God” is saying about us. If this is true, then our family of origin is divine. It is saying that we were created by a loving God to also be love in the world. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. Our starting point is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, because we know and can trust the clear direction of our life’s tangent.

.. We must all overcome the illusion of separateness. It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness “sin.” God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. “My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God” (1 John 3:2).

Henceforth, all our moral behavior is simply “the imitation of God.” First observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere, and then do the same thing (Ephesians 5:1). And what does God do? God does what God is: Love. God does not love you if and when you change. God loves you so that you can change!

Richard Rohr: An Evolving Faith

Little by little we begin to respond to God’s love, but we still perceive God’s love as dependent on our ideal response. We believe that grace is a conditional gift, that God will love us if we are good, that God will save or reward us if we keep the commandments or go to church.

As we practice giving and receiving love, we begin to see God’s love is infinite and unconditional, but the implications are just too mind-blowing. We acknowledge that God loves us whether we are good or bad, and that God is gracious to the just and the unjust alike. But we still think that God is doing that from afar, from up in heaven somewhere. We do not yet see ourselves as inherently participating in the same process. Frankly, we have not yet discovered our own soul.

Finally, we make the breakthrough to seeing that God’s grace and love is present within us, through us, with us, and even as us! We wake up to who we truly are: the image and likeness of God.

.. The mystery of incarnation has come full circle. We can now enjoy God’s temple within our own body as the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and throughout), and we can love ourselves, others, and God by the one same flow. It is all one stream of Love! We fully realize that it is God who is doing the loving, and we surrender ourselves to being channels and instruments of that Divine Flow in the world. We do not initiate the process; we only continue it.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Let God Be God

St. Augustine said, “If you comprehend it, it is not God.” [1] Would you respect a God you could comprehend? And yet, very often we want a God who reflects and even confirms our culture, our biases, our economic, political, and security systems.

.. The First Commandment (Exodus 20:2-5) says that we’re not supposed to make any graven images of God or worship them. At first glance, we may think this means only handmade likenesses of God. But it mostly refers to rigid images of God that we hold in our heads. God created human beings in God’s own image, and we’ve returned the compliment, so to speak, by creating God in our image. In the end, we produced what was typically a small, clannish God. In America, God looks like Uncle Sam or Santa Claus, an exacting judge, or a win/lose business man—in each case, a white male, even though “God created humankind in God’s own image; male and female God created them” (see Genesis 1:27). Clearly God cannot be exclusively masculine. The Trinitarian God is anything but a ruling monarch or a solitary figurehead.

..  If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (see Colossians 1:15) then God is nothing like we expected. Jesus is in no sense a potentate or a patriarch, but the very opposite, one whom John the Baptist calls “a lamb of a God” (see John 1:29). We seem to prefer a lion.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Reclaiming Jesus

The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” [2]

.. I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God

.. III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

.. God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).