We need more compassion in the world

We need more compassion in the world. I’m not writing about feeling sorry for people, although there’s room for that too. I am writing about having empathy — about sympathizing — about walking in someone’s footsteps before judging them.

One of many good pieces of advice I’ve received during my life is that if you treat everyone as if they are suffering in some way, you will be right most of the time. So if we empathize with those suffering — we all suffer in some way, shape, manner or form during our lives, some far more than others — we establish a connection that will explain a lot.

I’m not writing about making excuses for behavior either, suffering or not. Unless mentally incompetent, we’re all responsible for our behavior and for what we do and say. But through empathy, we can at least begin to establish a reason, if not an excuse, for behavior.

Some, though, want little to do with empathy. They don’t want sympathy and don’t seem to need it. They are driven to persevere and make their fortunes no matter how bad their suffering may be.

Jewish German banker, businessman and financier Nathan Rothschild (Sept. 16, 1777 – July 28, 1836) was reputed to have said, “Great fortunes are made when the cannonballs are falling in the harbor, not when the violins are playing in the ballroom.” I don’t know if he ever was inspired by this quote, but one man who nonetheless must have subscribed to Rothschild’s theory about perseverance and fortune-making was James Prather Jr., better known as “Jimmy-J.”

To meet him, you wouldn’t think Jimmy-J was suffering, according to his son, John. Jimmy-J didn’t care for you to know about his suffering and didn’t want your empathy. And he certainly didn’t want you feeling sorry for him. But if you, too, subscribe to the good advice I received about assuming everyone is suffering in some way, you would have been right about Jimmy-J.

Jimmy-J was born in Texas with the wild blue yonder in his blood. He started flying crop dusters at age 15 and flew for the rest of his life, living and dying doing what he loved best.

Jimmy-J ultimately became an Army helo pilot in Vietnam and then flew as a contract instructor at Fort Rucker, training U.S. Army helicopter pilot students. It was during a training flight at Fort Rucker when his tail rotor was clipped by his wingman’s main rotor blades and he careened, spinning wildly, into the ground and crashed.

Pulled from the wreckage, he survived, but the crash crushed every vertebra in his back and broke his legs so badly he lost the use of his ankles. He was just short of starting employment with Delta Airlines when he crashed. Now he was prevented from achieving a life-long dream to fly as a commercial airline pilot.

Jimmy-J might as well have had cannonballs bring his life to an end. But his perseverance and will to continue flying pushed Jimmy-J beyond his pain, physical limitations, and disappointments caused by the crash. He was able to hide, pretty well, his suffering and disabilities and focus on what he could do. Jimmy-J fooled more than one doctor along the way so he could persevere in his chosen profession and dance again to the violins in the ballroom.

Jimmy-J’s son empathized with his dad’s suffering, to the extent a son can empathize with his father. As his dad aged, he was certain his dad suffered from excruciating pain in his back and legs though his dad wouldn’t admit it. Yet he drew strength from his dad’s perseverance.

After long months of physical therapy Jimmy-J was able to re-obtain his medical ticket and resume flying. Not Delta jets, yet he nonetheless continued his forays into the wild blue yonder flying helicopters until his death in a helicopter crash while surveying mountain power lines — doing what he loved to do — in 1992.

His son, John, honoring his dad’s legacy and memory, went on to become an aviator himself, successfully crewing EA-6B Prowlers with the Marines at MCAS Cherry Point for 20 years.

Jimmy-J inspired his son. What a great example he was of perseverance. And what better way to empathize with one’s father than for his son to follow in his footsteps?

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at fetzerab@ec.rr.com.