This week, Ohio’s Rob Portman became the first Republican Senator to openly support gay marriage.  First in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Dana Bash and again in an OpEd for a right-leaning traditional news publication based in Central Ohio.

There seem to be two schools of reactions from the left.  One is a genuine embrace of his changed stance as an ally for an issue important to most on the left.  The other is lukewarm acceptance coupled with “yeah, but what about these other issues” criticism.

I’m pretty firmly in the first camp.  I don’t think you can work so hard to make well thought out and logical arguments for an issue and not allow someone on the opposing side the space to change their minds.  It’s the point of political discourse, really.  That’s not to say that arguments against the politics of narcissism aren’t valid.  I just find it better to say thank you and not “thank you, but…”

Senator Portman deserves credit for doing something that anyone who supports gay marriage wanted him to do – support it.  No qualifications.  He did the right thing and did so by going against two thirds of his own party on the issue.  That’s a BFD for someone who has never lost an election.

I think the story is very instructive on a larger level when we look at both Democrat and Republican Party politics.

Republicans seem only able to empathize with certain situations if they are actually in them.  Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be able to empathize and relate to others without having to directly experience what they are going through in their lives.

Portman had an opinion on an issue that changed once he had a personal experience with the issue.  Many on the right exhibit this same kind of behavior.  You’ll remember Sarah Palin railing on almost every kind of government social spending – except additional aid for disabled children.  Because she had a disabled child herself.

This is one reason why I define myself as a Democrat and liberal and not a Republican or conservative.

It’s another reason that I value my (on again/off again) Buddhist practice.  Meditation and mindfulness naturally breaks down our notion of who we are and expands that notion outward until we see ourselves as part of everyone and everything else.  We are all one.

Many on the right like to make fun of this notion and Congressman Tim Ryan has been excoriated by them for writing a book on mindfulness.  They point and laugh mainly because they have no understanding.  Tim Ryan is right.  The difference between Congressman Ryan and Senator Portman is one doesn’t need to have personal experience to see oneself in others’ experiences.  I would argue Ryan’s Democratic view is a more evolved version of empathy than Portman’s Republican view.  I would also argue that mindfulness has a great deal to do with the ability to see the world in this way.

You develop empathy outward.  We are all naturally empathetic to our own experiences.  Slightly more difficult, but still natural is empathy toward the lives of our family.  This expands further to those we know – neighbors, co-workers, etc.  The most difficult to develop is empathy for complete strangers or those we have very little, if anything, in common with.  It’s why it’s so easy for us to start wars with brown people in far away lands.

Portman coming out in support of gay marriage is a positive sign that we are winning the issue.   It’s becoming more and more politically untenable to oppose it.  The arc of the universe is indeed bending toward equality for the gay community.  We should embrace Portman’s reversal.  We should also continue to develop and expand our circles of empathy and hope that Republicans will do so as well.