Pope Francis has identified the phenomenon, and he has named it: a "culture of indifference." In the face of so much loneliness and brokenness, we tend to wall ourselves off from others, rather than enter into their suffering. Maybe it's like being afraid of the playground bully as a child; if we get involved, maybe the pain of the other will somehow get turned onto us.
But when he speaks of a "culture" of indifference, Pope Francis is recognizing that there is something more than our personal fears or failures at work. Indeed, in countless ways, the culture in which we live shapes how we think and act. For example, if "only the strong survive," then why would I want to be associated with the weak? If ending the suffering of others is the new definition for "compassion," then why would I want to "suffer with" someone else, as the traditional understanding and definition would suggest?
In Consoling the Heart of Jesus, Fr. Michael Gaitley advocates what he calls a "merciful outlook"--that is, "responding to the suffering of another's existential loneliness by expressing delight in him" (p. 157). He maintains that people long to be seen and known and recognized as the gift of God which they truly are, and yet all too often we find ourselves ignored or used or pushed aside. The indifference of others leads us to question whether we are a gift of God to the world.
Fr. Gaitley proposes a simple yet profound way to reverse this trend. He calls it the art of the "merciful question"; it is simply a way of asking another person about his or her hopes or joys, fears or sorrows. It is a path not of prying, but of walking with another person, listening with an open heart, and delighting in the other. It is also not a pseudo-conversation starter--e.g., "now that I've finished asking you about yourself, let me tell you all about me..." Rather, it is an invitation to the other person to open up and reveal something meaningful about who he or she is.
In his message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis recently observed, "In the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing for fraternity which draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals, but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced." But given a prevailing culture of indifference, the question becomes whether anyone will be there to respond to this "irrepressible longing."
What if we all went counter-cultural in 2014? One of my super sisters-in-law has always been big on naming a New Year's resolution. So, in honor of her, give this one your consideration: "Develop a new ear in the New Year." Maybe you already have a resolution (I'm working on a variation of a couple classics, "eat less and move more in one-four" [for '14]), or maybe you've already given up on yours. Regardless, we could all look for opportunities to listen with love. This is the merciful method of meeting people where they are, so that God can continue leading them where he wants them to be. This is the kind of resolution which could help transform the culture.
Maybe you have already mastered the art of the "merciful question." If so, continue creating opportunities for people to speak of what brings them joy and peace--sure signs of the Holy Spirit--, as well as what causes them to worry or ongoing pain--since this is where the Lord longs to enter and to accompany each of us. For, just as prayer changes us more than it changes God, such merciful listening will undoubtedly open our minds and hearts in ways that we can't even imagine.
So let's go and "ask questions which open the door, in one-four." Have a blessed New Year!