Compassion

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato

It’s been a difficult few days. I’ve spent them in rural New England, but my thoughts have rarely strayed away from Athens, from my friends and relatives there, the suffering that has gripped the city. As far away as I have been, I have been anxious — at times in physical pain — as I’ve watched Greek skinheads celebrate their party’s electoral gains, or as I’ve received hate mail from their sympathizers. Flashes of childhood memories mix with these new scenes: the deep bullet scar from the war in my uncle’s calf; a tank smashing through a university’s gate; posters with the names of dead students.

I’ve been thinking about fear, my own and theirs, the ones who voted last Sunday. One out of five is out of a job. Those who are still working have seen their salaries cut by as much as half. Hope, it seems, now comes only in the form of irregular bail-out payments. It’s all miserable and humiliating and easy to see that it could make one feel violated, powerless, and frightened.

Athenians are afraid, and I am afraid, and perhaps those who voted for Golden Dawn are the Greeks who are most afraid. The Greek working class, from which the group draws its support, has long suffered in a society of deep class divisions and social inequity. In the crisis, these, too, are the people who are the least capable of weathering hardship. Which might explain why Golden Dawn’s supporters scapegoat immigrants — the only social group weaker and more vulnerable than them. (How fatefully ironic that Germany would be the driver of Greek austerity and the inspiration for Greece’s worst social pathology.)

A social entrepreneur, who tries to rehabilitate violent offenders among Germany’s right-wing extremists, says she first tries to reawaken feelings of empathy in them. It got me thinking about fear and how it can destroy empathy, making ordinary people act like monsters.

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