NEW YORK (CNN) — “Daddy,” my 7-year-old daughter, Isabelle, asked me this morning at breakfast, “Who is Mark Sanford, and why is he on the news?”
I received two phone calls about Sanford on Wednesday afternoon. One was from a liberal Democrat who was outraged. “What a hypocrite!” he said. The caller asked whether I knew what he had said about a case of an unfaithful congressman. “He said, ‘He lied under a different oath, and that’s the oath to his wife.’ And all that family values stuff! C’mon.”
The other was from a conservative Republican. “It’s terrible what’s happening to Sanford.” He told me, “He’s a good guy. The press is tearing him apart! They’re lingering on all the sordid details. Give the guy a break.”
Here’s what’s interesting: When I asked each of them about the impeachment of Bill Clinton, they flip-flopped. The liberal Democrat was angry at the press, and the conservative Republican was disgusted with the former president.
We all have a lens that pre-determines how we view the world. We read the papers, watch the news channels and appreciate the opinions that confirm our biases. We’ve already made up our minds, and we like to confirm that we’re right.
We also love to be outraged. We love sentences that start with, “Could you believe …” or “How could he …”
In this case, as in most cases, the outrage is understandable, because Mark Sanford did something he shouldn’t have done. We could all agree, I think, that he should not have abandoned the state for several days, he should not have lied about where he was, and he should not have been unfaithful to his wife.
But save your outrage for Iran or Darfur, for situations where people are being tortured and trampled and killed.
We need to understand this situation for what it is: human weakness, poor judgment, personal longing and complicated relationships. The question is, how are we — each one of us personally — going to respond? I’d like to make a suggestion:
We should empathize.
Regardless of what you think of his behavior, no matter how you feel about adultery, whatever your views of Mark Sanford as a politician or a person.
Here’s the tricky part: Don’t just empathize with Mark. Empathize with Jenny, his wife, and their boys. And with Maria, the mystery woman in Argentina. And with the press for doing their best to decipher and report the details. And with the people who are outraged. Don’t take sides. Try to truly understand, without judging anyone, how everyone got to where they are and how each one feels.
Now, that’s hard. But it’s worthwhile, because very little good comes from disgust and outrage. Mostly, those reactions simply serve to separate us from each other and, perhaps more important, ourselves. And from our own feelings of vulnerability and weakness. It’s useful to get in touch with those feelings, because they help prevent us from making the same mistakes.
It’s just too easy to become a hypocrite, to have one standard for people we like and another for people we don’t, to judge one person and then excuse another when basically they both did the same thing.
Outrage doesn’t get us very far in situations like this. Right or wrong, true or false, black or white might be how we’d like to see the world, but that’s not how the world is. The world is full of “I don’t knows” and “maybes” and “I hopes” and “I wishes.” And we’re all fumbling through trying our best to make the decisions that will make us happy.
It’s useful to empathize because then we understand how these things happen. Mark Sanford is all too human, just like each one of us. He didn’t make one stupid decision. He made lots of small decisions that couldn’t be categorized as smart or stupid until, at some point down the road, it becomes one or the other.
“It began very innocently,” Sanford said in his news conference, “as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth, in advice on one’s life there and advice here. But here recently over this last year, it developed into something much more than that.”
That’s how bad and good things happen. Ponzi schemes, affairs, embezzlements and also marriages, careers, wealth. Lots of little steps that slowly, over time, bring us to a place we may or may not have planned to be. A place that may be constructive or may be destructive.
I am not saying that Sanford shouldn’t be held accountable. He should. But we should hold him accountable with compassion, not with anger. With understanding not with pitchforks. With the recognition that if we were closer to the situation, to the people involved, we would understand the complexity. And there’s always complexity.
“Sweetie,” I responded to Isabelle, “Mark Sanford is the governor of South Carolina, and he did something he shouldn’t have done. He lied.”
“Why did he do that?” Isabelle asked.
Now we’re getting somewhere.