How to show compassion for a president who lacks it himself

Many of us want to feel compassion even for a man who rarely exhibits it but feel sincerely challenged to sympathize for someone we hold responsible for profound human suffering.

(RNS) — After our family was infected by and survived COVID-19, I said to my partner that I wouldn’t wish what we had gone through on anyone. It was the most harrowing and stressful experience of my life, especially as our two young girls spiked dangerously high fevers that, no matter what we tried, we couldn’t control.

Now that President Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus, I am channeling this memory as a way to summon the appropriate sympathy for a man who so rarely shows it to others in his public life — not to children penned into cages at the Mexican-U.S. border, not to his political enemies, not to people protesting racial injustice. Instead he has demonized and dehumanized Muslims all across the world and degraded women and girls at every turn.

At the Republican National Convention, a parade of Trump family members, aides and other associates testified to the empathy they had seen the president display in private in an extended acknowledgment of what the rest of us never see him do.

My faith teaches me that each of us is equally divine and that we are better off when we can see the shared light in everyone we encounter.

Sometimes, though, beliefs are hard to put into practice. To be honest, it has become increasingly challenging for me to see that divine light in Mr. Trump. 

It gets harder yet when I consider Trump’s irresponsible and incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He put my family and the families of millions of Americans at risk. The malice and hate he seems to bear taint not only what he says and does, but also has destroyed the very fabric of our nation.

So where does that leave those of us who want to feel compassion for our political enemies but feel deeply and sincerely challenged by people in our world responsible for immense levels of human suffering?

Let me go back to my own experience with surviving the novel coronavirus, a lesson that’s not unique to me. There’s something about staring death in the face that can lead us to soften our hearts and reevaluate our life choices.

For me, that meant challenging myself to live in accordance with my priorities, and specifically, making time for the relationships I cherished most in my life. Seeing the fragility and impermanence of our lives pushed me to live less in the future and more in the present. It was a spiritual experience that completely transformed my relationship with the world around me — and especially with my closest friends and family members.

I hope that Trump will experience something similar as he endures COVID-19. I hope the experience challenges him to revisit his priorities and his life choices, and I hope it leads him to come out of his egomania and connect with the people around him.

We have seen in the past how meeting death can soften the hearts even of tyrants — from the story of Pharaoh in the Exodus to the memory of Aurangzeb’s repentance upon receiving the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh’s life-changing letter (the Zafarnamah).

I am not here to convince anyone to pray for the president or to judge anyone for wishing him ill. What I do know is that there are a number of potential outcomes that feel sinister. One outcome we can hope and pray for is this: May the experience of enduring COVID-19 soften Mr. Trump’s heart and cause him to lead with more compassion and kindness in the future.