I went to REI recently and bought a pair of Kuhl shorts I’d had my eye on. I almost never try shorts on in the store, because they are pretty consistently correct in their size 32’s, even across all those brands that REI carries. I got these shorts home and discovered that the snap was no good; it would not completely fasten. I returned them a day or two later and had to opt for a different style and color, since the other size 32’s also had the defective snap issue. So I got a grey pair and once they were laundered, I wore them only to discover they were too big. So I took those back as well, and to my delight, they had gotten a new shipment of the original style, so I found a pair with a working snap and made yet another exchange. Remember, this is REI, and they never give the customer grief about returns. The cashier asked if I’d worn the grey pair at all and I admitted I had, so she affixed a tag that said “used.” I figure they’ll show up in one of their garage sales soon.
As I was driving home, I got to thinking about the two exchanges I’d made and that REI gladly processed, no questions asked. Both of the issues could have been prevented had I tried on the shorts in the store, but REI happily complied, as they always do. This got me thinking further about the store’s policy of placing importance on the customer. Don’t get me wrong though: REI is a corporation like any other. They want to make a profit as any company does. And this post is in no way a love story about REI, although I really like the store. About 95% of my wardrobe is from them.
So what am I on about? Well, I was still on the way home when the above thoughts led me to musing about the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. What is this film really about? The importance of friends? The far-reaching impact one individual can have on others? Sacrifice for the sake of family? Yeah, all of the above. But underpinning all of them is one thing: empathy. George Bailey inherits both the family business and his father’s great capacity for compassion. When Potter is angling to wrest the building & loan from the Baileys, George admits his father was “no businessman,” yet George is determined to maintain an unprofitable business if only to serve the town’s less fortunate. It’s a simple yet effective illustration of two philosophies: altruism and capitalism. The capitalist is cast as an unfeeling curmudgeon bent on monopolizing all of Bedford Falls. The altruist is a devoted husband and father who thinks he’d be better off dead rather than let events lead to the loss of his business, his family, and his friends.
There have been some studies suggesting that empathy is a quality found in liberals, and the absence of empathy makes one more conservative. That is doubtless over simplistic. I know and have known diehard conservatives who embody a deep caring for others, just as I know liberals who can be very hateful. Generally, however, those are the exceptions. I think there is probably some truth to the studies’ conclusions. It’s also clear that our president is just about as far from an empath as one can be; like Mr. Potter, he simply is not wired that way. But why does half (or almost half) the country support him? Well, it’s because half the country are not empathetic, and further, they think such a trait is a weakness. Another simplification? Probably, as there were other variables at work which resulted in a coup for Republicans in 2016. But, at bottom, it’s always been socialism versus free enterprise, and those are largely driven by compassion for one and the lack of it for the other.
As I re-read the above, I see that it’s pretty clumsy how I went from REI to politics, but I have always found it fascinating to contemplate my own stream-of-consciousness. After all, I’m all that really matters. The rest of you are merely avatars in a simulation imposed on my conscience by far more intelligent beings.
See how that works? Stream. Of. Consciousness.