Catholic priests are not known for preaching profound sermons, so it’s a blessing that most conform to the idea of making homilies short. Custom has it that ten minutes is the ideal length. But every now and then, congregants are surprised, as I was a few Sundays ago when our visiting celebrant began to speak to the Gospel about Jesus’ caring for the afflicted. He began telling us about something he’d read recently. It seems that late in life, Margaret Mead, the famous cultural anthropologist, was asked what she considered the earliest sign or marker of civilized life on earth. The questioner expected her to talk about a beautiful pottery shard or some vessel used by early humans to cook food, or perhaps one of the first discovered cave paintings carved by humanoid artists at the dawn of life as we know it. After musing over the question for some time, Mead said that she believed the first sign of civilization was a healed human femur bone she had come across on one of her digs. Her reasoning is profound. She told the person asking the question that she chose this relic because it told her that someone had had a badly hurt leg but that someone else had tried to help relieve the pain. Someone had cared about a fellow creature and had extended themself to help that afflicted individual.
I was sufficiently moved by this story that I made a note about it that I took away with me. Of course the priest used this story as a springboard for talking about Jesus as a major example of someone who helped heal so many hurting parts of human beings who came to him for assistance. Toward the end of his homily, he challenged us all to go out of ort way to make a hurt “femur” less painful. Saint Teresa came to mind because of her simple tenet that these days we are the hands of Jesus, called to do unto the “least of these” that we meet along our journeys. Then I began thinking that Mead’s idea of being “civilized” dovetails with current discussions about empathy as a fundamental sign of being human. Similarly, then, being incapable of empathy is a sign that I am unable to break free of my own limited ego with its needs and comfort zones, that I am unable to imagine what a given event or object or set of words might feel like to someone different from me. SO many examples exist in our current society of people who would walk past the person with the hurt femur, or who would read life from a purely autobiographical perspective, or who let personal discomfort override any more generous emotion.
If I think in political terms, I know that someone who cannot or will not help me if my femur is damaged should not be given power, since s/he will only use that power for personal gain. Such a person can inflict grave physical or emotional or economic or spiritual harm on other human beings. Such a person has little or no concept of the common good, and will most likely feel antagonistic because of being afraid of anyone who looks or behaves differently from them. Diversity is seen as a threat rather than an asset by such individuals. Advice is less likely to be taken seriously since it may come from someone who may on occasion disagree with or challenge the non-empathetic person.
In my own life, I work hard to remain open to differences of all kinds since I recognize just how limited my own little personal sphere is in relation to the larger world. And as many voices around me seem just now to speak with such fear and anger about those who do not mirror their own values, I strive to find overt behaviors that resist such approaches. Most of what I come up with couldn’t qualify as impressive or even consequential, e.g., I now say “hello” to strangers I pass on the sidewalk who are not white like me or who wear clothes that identify their religious beliefs or who are struggling with some kind of handicap or incapacity. While this simple and tiny gesture won’t change the circumstances of those people’s daily life, it will let them know that I mean them no harm, that I see them if only for the second our paths intersect, perhaps even that I offer the smallest assistance to their vulnerable femur.