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The unkindest of times

When my son was 8, a classmate's mother said he had hurt her son's feelings by not letting him play with the rest of the class at recess.

My son? Unkind? Impossible.

Well, he explained later, "Nobody wanted him to play, so I said we'd had an election, and he didn't get enough votes."

"You "voted?' "

"You make such a big deal out of elections and stuff like that. I thought that's how you'd want me to handle it," he said, genuinely surprised.

Well, yes, we'd always made a big deal of elections and stuff like that. In fact, at the time, I was a precinct chairman and up to my elbows in a presidential campaign, although not my own, you'll be relieved to know.

Ashamed, I realized that along with my conscientious, probably smug government lessons, I'd forgotten to mention anything about compassion.

I've been thinking of that incident lately because it seems to me that these days, a lot of people have sort of shoved compassion aside _ maybe like me, simply forgetting all about it _ as they go about remodeling the world to match their own image of what it should be.

I know that, in hard times, we're not at our best. At least, I'm not, and yes, I've heard stories about the Depression and how it brought out the mettle in many of us, and maybe that's true.

I also think economic worries exacerbate and exaggerate all our concerns, whether financially based or not. We become short-tempered and not as generous toward others.

Last summer, I interviewed Dave Knapp, a longtime Fort Worth community activist and persistent thorn in some pretty influential sides, as he's followed his conscience's call to meddle in matters others would rather he leave alone.

I asked him how he hopes his children differ from him.

"I hope they're a little kinder and a little less quick to question the motives of others," he said.

During an election year, it's easy to guess at motives. Anything the candidates say is suspect. In fact, it just this minute occurred to me that perhaps one reason so many jumped on the Ross Perot bandwagon is that Perot doesn't talk down to the public, while every time George Bush opens his mouth, you can sense the whole country leaning back in its La-Z-Boy, crossing its collective arms and saying, "Oh, sure."

What's bothering me more is that our panicky self-absorption seems to transcend the expected election-year response. The letters to the editors of magazines and newspapers, and some that hit my own desk, aren't just of the "I'm right, you're wrong" ilk.

Those I don't mind, as long as some hint of respect for a different point of view rests between the lines, however obscure, or there's a reasoned explanation why one is right and the other wrong. At times, I'm even a tad envious of those so strong of opinion they harbor no intellectual insecurity whatsoever. How easy that makes the thought process.

What's depressing are those that say, "I'm right, you're wrong; therefore, I'm good, you're bad." Or, my church says such and such, and if yours says otherwise, then to heck with you and the horse you rode in on. My Scriptures outweigh your Scriptures. If that ubiquitous creature from Mars read our nation's letters to the editor, it would assume that something called Christian values were the only acceptable tenets, and, by the way, how come you never read anything therein about Jewish values or Buddhist values or any values other than Christian, and I mean my particular, specific Christian values and not yours or your neighbor's?

From perusing those same pages, the puzzled little creature might wonder what kind of religion or philosophy so ignores compassion. Offhand, I can't think of any that do; it's just that we practitioners tend to forget that special nugget that should be the heart of any religion, along with its most logical companion, empathy.