Let’s talk about empathy, which, according to a recent NPR story, “The End of Empathy” (April 15, 2019, Hanna Rosin), is seemingly declining in younger generations.
Associate professor Sara Konrath from Indiana University has been tracking a trend, or a critical shift, whereby younger generations do not feel it’s their responsibility to “see the world from someone else’s perspective.” This shift toward apathy is not the only ailment currently facing empathy. Research compiled by Fritz Breithaupt, also a professor at Indiana University, and presented in his soon to be published book The Dark Sides of Empathy, contends that selective empathy can begin to look a lot like tribalism.
Ever since mirror neurons were discovered in the early 1990s, researchers have been busy contemplating and researching if they are the key to empathy and conformity. V.S. Ramachandra, a distinguished professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego has even called them “the basis of civilization.” That is a lot of responsibility placed on a neurological response that is dependent on only one of our senses: sight. (Mirror neurons connect an observer watching another person perform a task—both brains show activity in the same area of the brain at the same time. Hence, “monkey see, monkey do.”)
As a spiritual counselor and an empath, I, too, have noticed empathy being stretched thin by growing social, spiritual, and corporate agendas. As a polarized society seeking unity and civility, we have heralded its ability to bind humanity together, and perhaps have unfairly expected it to deliver on a promise it never made.
Walking in another person’s shoes requires flexibility.
We can use our imagination and extrapolate from our experiences to try and relate to others who may be faced with somewhat different circumstances but similar emotions. But can a housewife in the American Midwest truly empathize with a mother’s plight of raising children in a refugee camp halfway around the world? Yes, if she sees a mother as she is a mother, regardless of cultural barriers. This would be an example of universal empathy.
But not everyone embodies such unconditional sensibilities to apply empathy evenly across humanity. Some individuals are still figuring out how to empathize with their own family members, let alone their neighbors. Others can seemingly only relate to a specific set of peers. Selective empathy serves the individual because that is where the emotional capacity of the person is presently. And when pushed beyond one’s capacity to care, you encounter indifference and apathy.
Empathy’s pathway: personal experience.
We empathize with someone when we too have felt similar physical pain, mental stresses, or emotional upset. Without empathy, one is more or less isolated and experiencing the world purely as an individual. The essence of empathy is, “I recognize myself in you; though we are different we are alike in this matter. I know your pain because I have felt similar pain.”
Functional empathy leaves room for each individual to have their own experience. If you do not have your own experience to operate empathy from when extending yourself outward through this pathway, the connection and motivation is questionable and really not sustainable. Empathy requires personal experience and internal growth. But it also requires emotional awareness to start with. You need to understand your emotions in the context of your own life—there are no hypotheticals when experiencing an emotional upheaval.
Successful support groups are formed from an alliance of empathy—and not because misery loves company but because healing is more easily facilitated when you do not feel alone, and when you can be truly be heard by your peers.
Politicians who have personal experience with social welfare and civil rights issues tend to promote equality and inclusion in those areas deemed “special interest” to them. The talking points of the politician will resonate as truth-centered and grounded from personal experience. If the politician is more or less pandering, the words will feel hollow and false. This is partly why so many politicians borrow stories from their constituents—they must find a truth that can resonate with their message.
Activism spawned from empathy unites not just one story but many stories, and part of the power of empathy is how each individual worked through, healed, integrated, and embodied some personal truth to be part of the collective wisdom.
Empathy training ground: triggers.
In today’s increasingly attentive atmosphere to political correctness and personal development, one of the buzzwords now used in readings and presentations of traumatic material is “trigger.” This means that the material might induce a psychological reaction in a person in the audience. It’s a warning system to aid vulnerable persons who may identify or empathize too much with the subject.
If you are trying to process another person’s pain and suffering, you will find that it is a taxing and thankless job, and it’s impossible. As much as we want to alleviate the pain of a friend or loved one, it is nonetheless their personal journey. You can accompany them by offering comfort and solace, compassion and patience, but it is up to them and their unique timing at how they come to accept and integrate a loss or trauma in their life. Or, if someone else’s traumatic situation does induce your own vulnerabilities and emotional wounds, it is evidence that there is still some healing that needs to happen before you are able to offer yourself as a resource to someone else.
The world and national news are a constant “trigger” zone when it comes down to the reality that every day, and nearly every second, someone somewhere is in danger from abuse. Wars, pollution, poverty, greed, economic crisis, political pandering, sexual mistreatment, mass extinctions, and on and on, a seemingly never-ending newscast of the horrors afflicting humanity.
How can a sensitive person hear all this, feel this, experience this, and still continue to live and breathe with hope for a better world? Quite simply, compassion.
Back to basics: compassion.
Empathy naturally unites and fosters inclusion; it does not motivate manipulation or competitiveness. And yet, society and therapeutic settings have nearly overdosed on the concept of empathy, hoping that if we can ultimately teach children to care about each other, all will be well.
In theory, yes; but let’s look at where genuine empathy and sympathy emanate from—the heart’s central intelligence of compassion. The brain may light up with cognition, but the heart lights up with compassion. Compassion is a fundamental aspect of respecting life—it offers a place to meet another’s suffering, regardless if the catalyst is empathy or sympathy. And it starts with compassion for oneself.
Overemphasizing empathy as a goal, or an ideal personality trait, particularly for corporate leadership or as indication of being spiritual adept, is partly contributing to the empathy’s downward trend. Its hype and marketing has outpaced its production capabilities. The pendulum is swinging away from the ideal and back to the reality that many individuals need to focus on their own inner lives and value their own life experiences before they are able to see themselves in another. The swing is hopefully going to reinstate sympathy as an associate partner to empathy, as a means to express compassion regardless of personal experience.
Empathy broadens the horizons of where you see yourself reflected—a movement in the fabric of humanity based on your own life experiences. Perhaps the younger generation needs to experience their life and choices before we can demand that they empathize with the rest of the world.
Life has a way of highlighting what’s important, and that’s something most of us can empathize with. What good is our reckless youth, if not to let the subconscious lay its minefield to be excavated later, when we are blessed with some maturity and acceptance of our younger selves.
Where else does empathy come from than from experience?