When I get up in the morning and sit down to my computer, I typically scroll through selected news sites to see what’s happening in the world before I start my work. Per my own advice, offered in Want to Feel Better, Really Better? Step Away From the News, I’m picky about my media sources and make sure to avoid most comment threads for the sake of my sanity. But still…
It’s impossible to completely block out the tone and tenor of our cultural view of each other – of “regular” people, of celebrities, of politicians, of… anyone. And the prevailing sentiment I see all around me – in the news, in comments and tweets, in Facebook threads, in blogs and shared stories, even simple conversation – is judgement. The unrelenting flow of criticism. Of condescension. Of arrogance. Of snide, sneering, dismissive, just sort of snitty characterizations of anyone and anything beyond ourselves, our particular groups; our own little worlds. It bothers me, kind of like the trash barge bothered Andie MacDowell’s character in Sex, Lies and Videotape, and like her, I don’t see any way to solve the problem of that floating debris. Except one.
I know… such a airy fairy, la la, positive-thinking concept. Would it help if I said what the world needs now is some fucking empathy?
However you say the word, it is, as mentioned in my piece on bullies, the antidote. To everything. To resentment, hate, crime, bigotry, trolling, abuse, violence, intolerance, passive-aggressiveness…. all of it. Think about that: one THING that could solve all the problems of the universe. And yet we humans, instead, spend our time circling our fierce fleets of wagons around the identities with which we align ourselves: political parties, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, countries, states, neighborhoods, clubs; even the way we eat (have you ever seen a vegan and bacon-lover go at it on Facebook??).
It’s absurd, really, the degree to which we create separation and the “us vs. them” mentality, but that impulse to divide and distance is at the heart of every single problem in the entire world and has been since the dawn of time. It’s only the most enlightened, the wisest, the most loving and spiritual, who’ve realized that we’re all of the same cloth; that we’re all here on this earth to do basically the same things: live, evolve, connect, contribute, and hopefully learn something of value before we pass off this mortal coil. And yet, despite that shared mission statement, we humans seem compelled to see our differences more than our most basic similarities. That impulse has gotten us into a lot of trouble over time, and it remains the single-most driving force behind the snarling, angry culture of today.
Now, let’s be clear: the reason I say “culture of today” (as opposed to any other time) is only because it’s the moment we’re in… and the one in which the ubiquity and reach of technology has made the minutia of every day life known to everyone worldwide, making us all aware of the dark turns of culture on a global scale. Certainly issues of empathy-lack were just as rampant when Vikings were slaying their conquests, the Brits were invading Africa, and Manifest Destiny was wiping out the Natives; we just weren’t hearing about it in minute-by-minute tweets (let’s face it: the “express” behind “pony” may have been a misnomer!). Nowadays, the sheer bombardment of seething examples drives the point home.
Empathy: The power to understand and enter into another person’s feelings. The willingness to walk in another’s shoes. The ability to imagine or experience the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another. The sense of compassion derived from the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” What would our world be if we actually had true empathy for each other?
Big themes include:
Race-hate and bigotry would be impossible, as we’d all understand that the color of skin, the ethnicity of one’s birth, have nothing whatsoever to do with the intrinsic value of a person.
Religious intolerance would be eradicated because we’d all be aware that while each of us has the right and freedom to believe as we choose, those personal beliefs cannot and must not be imposed or legislated upon anyone else.
Sexism and misogyny would be extinct, as men would recognize that gender has no bearing upon the worth, intellect, value or viability of another person.
Sexual violence and abuse would end because no one would find it acceptable to rape or assault another in service to a compulsive need to control or overpower.
Ageism and elder abuse would disappear, as we’d all realize that each and every one of us – if we’re lucky enough to live that long – will one day be the aged and our ability to grasp and understand the continued desire of that community to contribute, participate and experience life would be inevitable.
Political vitriol and partisan bullying would be abolished, as each person involved would grasp why another feels as they do and, even if in disagreement, would allow true respect and decorum to govern how governing is implemented.
Gun control would be a desired conversation and goal for both the gun lover and the gun control advocate because all parties would see the wisdom in making gun use saner and safer for everyone.
Mental health issues would get the necessary attention and funding because people would be less inclined to dismiss and disparage, understanding it as an affliction that can affect anyone in any age, economic, ethnic and religious background.
Homophobia and intolerance would be banished because we’d all accept that humans come in many different varieties and each is deserving of the same rights, freedoms and respect.
But even in the smaller, more secondary arenas, true empathy would make a significant shift in cultural discourse:
Media users would acknowledge and show respect to those who’ve taken the time and done the work to learn something, compelling them to – rather than snark and troll as a matter of habit – share, discuss and maybe learn something themselves.
When it comes to the many stories of average people, fellow humans would, perhaps, express real interest and support, even comment in respectful, intelligent, contributory ways (don’t laugh…. it can be done; see Same-sex couple never expected this response to their wedding photos).
With the endless click-bait fodder about the celebrities in our midst, the more empathetic would recognize that those who’ve gained fame via talent or circumstance are actual human beings with flaws, feelings, families, and a right to privacy, and won’t assume (as some recently did on my Facebook page) that ugly, incessant media scrutiny is “part of the package.”
Fellow citizens would grasp that not every needy person is or considers themselves “entitled,” not every subsidized American is an “aggrieved victim” (that’s for you, Condi Rice), and that showing compassion uplifts our country and improves our economy rather than burdens it.
Members of the electorate would – even if they disagree with the President – agree to do so respectfully, understanding that the sheer weight and enormity of the job is something NO ONE outside of the office can truly comprehend.
Neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members would solve problems without vitriol and anger because they’d have the ability to see the issues from the other’s point of view.
Marriages would survive to a greater degree because the parties involved would have the wherewithal to see beyond their own needs and wants to grasp those of their partner.
And so on.
Empathy may sound like one of those idealized concepts that reads well in print but is, in fact, too high-toned and elusive to be effective in changing true, tangible, earthbound problems in our society, but it’s not. It starts with one person. It’s what we teach our kids, it’s how to turn a bully, it’s what should guide each and every one of us in every single decision we make. Simply ask yourself this question before you write a comment, take an action, speak a piece, place a vote or… do anything:
How would I feel if this was done to me?
This intolerance, this judgment, this criticism, this bigotry and lack of compassion. This mischaracterization, this act of violence, this condescension, insult, denigration, separation, or annihilation. The big things; the little things, the things in between. How would I feel if any of those were done to me?
Once you know how you would feel… you know. You know exactly what to do, how to act toward another. Do that.
It really is that simple.
Bacon vs. Tofu @ Archie McPhee
Empathy cartoon found @ Inspire My Kids
Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Twitter, Facebook, and Huffington Post. Her article archive can be found at Contently, her photos at Fine Art America; details and links to her other work @ www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.
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