The Lost Art of Empathy
by Alison Ross
"See yourself in others, then who can you hurt? What harm can you do?" - The Buddha
"You are me and I am you. Isn't it obvious that we inter-are?" – Thich Naht Hanh
Very recently, I was driving through the area where I work, sullenly surveying the suburban wasteland of strip-mall sprawl. As I was driving, I caught a glimpse of one of my students attempting to cross the street. She was garbed in black from head to toe. Her figure cut a strange silhouette against the rather bleak backdrop – a monotonous infinity of corporate chains. I could detect no semblance of neighborhood character. I actually felt pity for my student; I thought to myself that we are rearing our children in thoroughly alienating environments, and they are losing out on refining a vital human faculty – that of empathy.
Empathy is at the crux of who we are. Empathy is typically defined as the intrinsic capacity to see others as a mirror of oneself; to relate to others, even strangers, in a deeply compassionate way.
I offer a slight twist on the definition of empathy. I define it as the unexpected intersection of sympathy and selfishness. It's not an ego-bound selfishness, of course, but rather a healthy selfishness wherein we want to do right by others because it helps us hone our own sense of who we are. We grow from our interactions with others, and when we interact in positive ways, this buoys us and transmutes our intuitive sympathy into the deeper dimension of empathy. Empathy is just one step removed from altruism, that grand dissolution of self, where our identity is fully absorbed in the act of serving others.
But the isolation from others in our communities is brutalizing who we are, causing us to turn introvertedly to nourish our outsized egos that are on extended loan from Narcissisus. Narcissism is fine if we are 2, but when we are 42, there is something very wrong.
Of course, many societies, including and perhaps even especially American society, put perverse emphasis the individual, as though we don't need others to sustain us in life. But interaction with other humans, and even animals and our natural environment, is what enables us to maintain mentally and emotionally symmetrical existences. The more we are isolated from others and our community, the more we suffer psychologically.
Being communally involved sharpens our instinct for empathy and compassion. We are less likely to get angry at our formerly faceless neighbors and more likely to regard them in a compassionate light.
The corporatization of our environments is one big factor that dissuades us from realizing our inextricable intertwining with others. In a truly colorful non-corporate environment, where independent businesses abound and the focus is people over profits, humans feel communally connected. In such an environment, we cultivate our boundless capacity for empathy and hence are more able to extend it beyond our immediate orbit.
In other areas besides our neighborhoods, we are also more disassociated with each other. In the public school milieu, for example, students are anonymously herded in and out of school buses, and in and out of classes, in and out of the cafeteria, and so on. The size of classes renders it impossible for teachers to connect in meaningful ways with the majority of their students, and the politically-motivated cold clinical reliance on test scores means that teachers will develop less vibrant lessons which might otherwise foster critical, creative and compassionate approaches toward life.
As we grow older, in our workplaces, people are treated as so much disposible waste. Outsourcing is rampant in private companies, and in the public sector, workers are frequently devalued and demoralized. Our workplaces should be sources of social well-being, where our hard work is rewarded with humane treatment and where we can fraternize without feeling the need to resort to petty competition.
We humans have the seeds of compassion already planted in our fertile souls; we simply need to water these seeds in order for them to flourish into flowers of empathy. Fear is the great leveler of compassion, however, and politicians and the media do an expert job of caressing this fear. Fear causes us to turn irrationally inward, intensifying unhealthy and unsavory egocentrism, which nukes compassion at its core.
A prime example of political/media collusion in stoking fear would be Bush's War on Terror. The War on Terror, of course, is just an illicit affair cooked up to divert our minds from the sour reality of our manipulated existences. And it succeeds to a degree because as a nation we have diverged from being sanely concerned about domestic tranquility – ensured through healthcare and jobs for all – to being inanely focused on the random infrequent actions of a disaffected band of miscreants who themselves are in sore need of empathic nourishment. There is no way to predict terrorist attacks, therefore it's senseless to worry about them - and the only way to prevent terrorism is to kill with kindness, not bomb the hell out of communities and profiteer from the resultant misery. But tell that to the media and politicians, who do not, contrary to pervasive perception, have our best interests in mind.
But really, our immense faculty for empathy is being chiseled away at all times, through various deliberate and subconscious modes. As mentioned previously, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces all conspire to erode our intrinsic compassion toward others. They also work to strengthen it, of course, so it's not quite as rigidly simplistic as I am making it out to be. There are plenty of good things about neighborhoods, schools, and work places, and of course these elements should be celebrated.
But it seems to me that we have lost the art of empathy in our world – or perhaps we never had a full grasp on it to begin with. One thing is for sure, however: when we lose empathy, we lose ourselves.