Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is being criticized for switching his stance on gay marriage after learning one of his sons is gay. Now that he knows and loves someone who might someday want to enter into a gay marriage, it’s a new ballgame.

Why does it have to be his kid, his family, his life in order for him to see the human side of a basic civil rights issue, some are asking.

Empathy is often slow in coming, and then it comes in bursts of discovery: Another human being stands before us and we suddenly see her struggle, his hopes. A beating human heart reconnects us to the rhythm of the human race.

A common complaint about the media from “disenfranchised” communities is that journalists don’t have firsthand experience. We write about trends and statistics, not about someone we know and care about.

Then something close to home happens - like newspapers imploding, a journalist being killed, or a colleague getting in legal trouble. Our personal experience deepens, we care more, and our coverage changes. When we cross over to greater sensitivity and understanding, we are also criticized for too little, too late. Why didn’t we care before?

It is true of voters, as well. Crime is just a statistic — until our neighborhoods become unsafe. Health care is an “issue” — until it’s our sick child.

In “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a bible for Southern liberals like me, Atticus Finch teaches his children empathy that crosses racial lines. They also learn empathy toward someone they’d thought was a monster. Here’s how Scout, the narrator, describes what she thinks Boo Radley must be like:

Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the
blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.

If you’ve ever seen propaganda posters from World War II, you know both sides portrayed the peoples they were fighting as similarly monstrous. Native Americans, African-Americans, Chinese people, Jewish people and gay people have all been hideously portrayed. And that list goes on.

Then those people become our neighbors, and we see them for who they are. When he rescues her and her brother, Scout sees Boo as a generous spirit, a giving and vulnerable man, not a monster.

Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.

On the last page of the book, Scout is falling asleep. She has now met Boo, held his hand, and walked him home. As her father, Atticus, tucks her in, she tells him about getting to know a person who was once a monster to her:

Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice…” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

There are no restrictions on how we discover compassion, or when. We find it in each other. It’s never too early, or too late.