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GUEST COLUMN

Shared pain unites the American people

Fear and uncertainty bring people together. Whereas Americans seem to be too competitive to share joy on any grand level, we have an amazing capacity for empathy during shared moments of pain.

Nothing unites us like a national crisis and the current economic meltdown certainly qualifies. Everyone...even those of us with good jobs and reasonable security...faces the possibility of the economy interrupting or even ruining there lives and none of us wishes that on anyone else.

Normally, we all remain divided by our differences and unable to see just how much we all share. Disaster, however, brings out the best in Americans and somehow causes us to see beyond ourselves.

Like a community that rallies one of its own when he or she gets stricken by disease, as a nation we have rallied around each other. Maybe there's not much we can do for each other, but our national tone has softened and our empathy for one another has increased.

The first time I ever felt this was on the streets of New York in the days immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when the city became engulfed in a shared camaraderie. Something terrible had happened, but those of us still standing shared a common loss and a common desire to press on.

We stood together partly in defiance and partly because we owed it to those who weren't there any more. Mostly, the petty differences that make regular life stressful seemed insignificant and we all felt a part of something bigger.

In America's common areas- the shops, restaurants, bars and meeting places-it feels like that now. Every single one of us feels the same pain whether it be for ourselves or for someone we know, and that breaks down barriers between us.

I thought about that early on Sunday morning as I got out of my car in front of the local coffee place, an older black man I had never met called to me and said, "that was a tough loss last night." It took me a minute to realize that I was wearing a Red Sox t-shirt and a second longer to see that he was decked out in New York Giants gear.

"Not as tough as the last one for us I said," gesturing towards his sweatshirt. We chatted for a few minutes and our exchange held none of the normal vitriol that a Boston fan and a New York fan would normally exchange in the no man's land of Connecticut.

Just one conversation out of the millions taking place that morning, ours seemed to me as emblematic of the times. With the economic world crashing around us, with people not knowing if they have jobs, homes or money for retirement, everyone softens towards his fellow man.

It's hard to find silver linings in the partial collapse of our economy, but anything that brings us together even a little bit can't be all bad. Maybe it takes disaster to remind everyone that no matter how great our differences, we really are not all that different.

Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com

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