What the World Needs Now Is…Empathy

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We humans are a competitive bunch. From time immemorial we’ve found every reason known to man to beat and bludgeon each other in the name of tribes, regions, countries, religions, even political parties and we don’t seem the least bit inclined to stop. It’s somehow burned into our DNA to set up stakes and draw lines meant to keep us separate and superior, except, of course, when imperialism raises its uppity head and pushes one group beyond the lines of another to prove “survival of the fittest.” This may have worked for the Huns, it had much to do with the assemblage now known as the United States, but when it comes to contemporary culture and the discourse between human beings currently inhabiting our planet, all this line-drawing, head-bludgeoning, chest-puffing aggrandizement is literally beating the hell out of us.

I’m not just talking about the combatants in the Middle East, tribal Africa, Communist China or drug-lorded Mexico. I’m talking about the more mundane crowd right here in our own back yards: the cable pundits, tea-partiers, neighborhood politicians, party opinion leaders, religious zealots, and Americans who seem to think some are more “real” than others.  It’s an eclectic group that’s narrowly focused, blindly competitive and deeply bereft of empathy. Which is a shame.

Empathy is defined as the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another person, a necessary component to the ability to feel compassion. To reach out to help others. Offer service. A shoulder. A hand up. A modicum of understanding. Compassion and empathy…they may not be the only things that there’s just too little of, but they’re surely at the top of the list.

For a moment, let’s focus on the more personal aspect of human relations, those exchanges and reactions that exist between people. One on one. The way we treat each other. The way we consider (or don’t) each other’s viewpoints. The way we fight our battles, leave our comments, debate our issues; get our points across. In our hyper-competitive society, where we are groomed from Day One to “be the best,” “knock the opponent down,” “win the prize,” “be right,” “get to the top,” often at the expense of anyone or anything in our way, the capacity for empathy is highly devalued. Boys who exhibit it are considered pussies. Girls who exude too much are relegated to girl-tracks, not tough enough to compete with the boys. Woman with empathy have lots of friends and run a hell of a PTA but don’t expect anyone to nominate them for Chairman of the Board. Men…well, men aren’t even supposed to consider empathy a part of their emotional palette much less feel it. It’s an emotion not particularly admired in these contentious times and we, as a society, are suffering for its lack.

There are those who think anyone in need of compassion or help is a freeloader, those who call a government that feels some obligation to its needy socialist, and those who think anyone who is different in any way, shape, form, color, creed, belief system or political party is simply wrong…less. Less of a “real American.” Less of a patriot. Opponents snarl, slam, insult and demean and it’s all done in the name of winning. Being right. Feeling superior.

Examples:

1.     A First Lady starts a healthy eating and exercise initiative and instead of everyone getting on board because it’s simply a good idea in this obesity-burdened society, women of the opposing party impugn her and it; even going so far as to suggest that more walking has resulted in more pedestrian accidents. Damned if they’ll get behind a good idea if it’s from the other side!

2.     Instead of eschewing political differences to work together to forge an insurance bill that’s universal and protective, partisans push and shove and make up idiotic names like “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Bill” as a way to whip up fear and debase opponents. God forbid we should concern ourselves with common folk who aren’t even our responsibility.

3.     The needs of one group can’t possibly be understood by another because that would require a willingness to walk in another’s shoes, understand their plight and consider workable solutions to their problems. That’s impossible when we’re too busy closing our minds to anything except our own bias. Please see The Dream Act.

4.     Ethnic generalities and inflammatory insults are commonplace in a country where Muslim equates terrorist and bigotry and intolerance are accepted and applauded by many, some of whom claim to have the Christian God and the Marines on their side. Just ask Councilwoman Deborah Pauly from Orange County, CA.

5.     Political debates, conversations, and campaigns can’t possibly include collaboration or focus on issues, remedies, or solutions because the participants are obligated to lie, cheat and obfuscate in their effort to not just win the argument, but demean and denigrate the opponent. See too many Republicans and most Fox News talking heads.

6.     Issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and women’s rights continue to be fodder for the screaming and yelling of zealots, racists, and sexists who find it impossible to consider the point and purpose of what drives these issues and makes them important to others. See placard-carrying protestors everywhere (and don’t get me started on the Phelps family).

There are obviously many more examples but these make the point. Intolerance, bigotry, hate, fear – the summation of all these is lack of empathy. I swear, in each and every one of these cases, if the parties involved were to honestly put aside their opinions and beliefs long enough to listen and really consider the WHY behind someone else’s, there’s no telling how much peace and harmony could be found in the valley.

We may not be conditioned that way. We’re imprinted to hold our opinion, shut out our opponent, win at all costs; prove the other guy wrong. But I can hope. Because I do see change. I see Don’t Ask Don’t Tell get repealed. I see young people plant community gardens and rally in support of their neighbors. I see negative politics rejected by some. I see expanded concern for even our international partners in the fight for democracy. I see love sweet love in unexpected places. It all gives me hope.

Empathy. It’s there to be had. No, not just for some. For everyone.

Climbers photo, artist unknown

All other photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke 

 

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27 Responses to “What the World Needs Now Is…Empathy”

  • Michele Stevenson Says:

    A concise summation of the root causes of the rise of incivility as the norm rather than the exception in human interaction. An example: A brief internet search for information on a potential presidential candidate yieled only results for what he said or what was said about him. I didn’t come across any links that enlightened me about his beliefs and accomplishments. Keep telling the truth Lorraine, and we’ll keep reading it and absorbing it : )!

    LDW Reply:

    Thank you, Michele. I think all we can do is keeping telling the truth as we see it. Some will reject what doesn’t align with their own set of beliefs, even intolerances, but other, like you, will appreciate the intent. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. LDW

  • dave Says:

    It’s odd that all your examples of people being bad are Republicans. It really looks like you don’t have much empathy, or open-mindedness. It seems like just a pose on your part. Like you’re setting yourself up on the moral high ground. Abstractly, what you write makes sense, but your examples give you away as just another bitter partisan.

    LDW Reply:

    David: I’m not going to deny that I’m from the Democratic side of the aisle, but I can’t agree with your general assessment of my take on things. The items I bring up are the ones that jump out at me on a daily basis that require some attention; if I were to see or hear ones as dramatic coming from the other side, I might be compelled to mention them, too.

    I’d like to believe that our two camps are equal when it comes to empathy and compassion but facts seem to illustrate the opposite on a general policy basis. The focus of the Republican party is more fixed on business, corporations and the protection of wealth, mixed with a somewhat contradictory government fixation on the personal lives of gay people, women with unwanted pregnancies, the racial and birth issues of our current president, particular myopia regarding immigrants and what to do with social services for the old, impoverished and infirm. There are many nuances on both sides, certainly; but in this one short column I chose to focus on those items that jumped out at me from my personal perspective. I have great empathy and compassion for anyone who would like to extend some real care and concern to the electorate at large, regardless of race, creed or color, wealth, immigration status or political affiliation.

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. LDW

  • madelayne Says:

    I have no words for how much I liked this post. Exactly what I have been thinking on these last days. Thank you for writing it.

    LDW Reply:

    Thank you for reading it, Madelyn! LDW

  • Cusson Says:

    There are actually a whole lot of details about this thoughtful article that I need to take into consideration. That is an important topic to bring up. I agree, there’s not enough empathy in the world but greatest practices of it have shown its power. I am certain that your job as a writer, to bring clear recognition to such things, is a valuable thing. We can all learn.

    LDW Reply:

    Thank you, Cusson, I agree and appreciate your comments. LDW

  • stephan Says:

    Nice post. I read something challenging on different blogs everyday and on this topic there’s always something to think about. Thanks.

    LDW Reply:

    Thanks, Stephan. LDW

  • Rodrick M Says:

    Spot on with this write-up. Such a true thing and a cause worth talking about, especially today with so much anger and hate in the world. I’m personally tired of it and wish we could all see each other through better eyes. Thank you for at least writing about it. I hope people read and think.

    LDW Reply:

    Thanks, Rodrick. Obviously I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment. LDW

  • Sherry Panitz Says:

    I apprciate you posting this. I believe everybody no matter w.h.o. they love deserve to have and raise a family. I own a blog so I’m always looking for new ideas and ways of thinking.

    LDW Reply:

    Yep…I agree. Empathy is at the center of most compassionate understanding and it’s what’s needed to create a culture that accepts everyone with open minds and hearts. Good luck with your blog, Sherry, and thanks for your comment. LDW

  • Edwin Rutsch Says:

    My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.
    http://Facebook.com/EmpathyCenter

    Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion
    http://Causes.com/Empathy

    LDW Reply:

    Edwin: Your mission statement is a powerful one (and obviously one I share!) so I will post some links on my own Facebook page and encourage others to visit yours. Particularly since you take the mission out of the passive and put it into action, something I know a lot of people are looking for. Bravo to your efforts and let me know if I can do anything else to drive traffic to your site (I’ll tweet it out there, too!). Thanks for stopping by and leaving your information. It takes all of us who care about this issue to do our part to keep it front and center! LDW

  • Isidra Wildner Says:

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) What the world needs now is more writers like you. Cheers!

    LDW Reply:

    Thanks so much, Isidra. Appreciate that you appreciated the point of this. Can’t be supported enough, that empathy angle! Thanks for stopping by. LDW

  • Cris Says:

    What the world needs now is also more Jackie deShannons…I am totally agreeing with the need for empathy, but increasingly alarmed that enemymaking rather than collaboration seems to be the new operative norm particularly in politics. Guess I’m just not as optimistic on the large scale, but yes, am encouraged on the one-to-one scale. So, how do we get all those ones to find common actionable ground with us? That’s the challenge.

  • Tina Says:

    Thank you for your article on empathy. It serves as a reminder of how vital it is to be empathetic moment to moment; each day. We are often too involved in making sure our needs are met and we are understood, to fully “put ourselves in another’s shoes.” Well done Lorraine! Many do not understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is comforting. Empathy is healing. “Yet, taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other’s good, and melt at other’s woe.” ~ Homer I will save this article and read it when I am being self-interred.

    LDW Reply:

    “Self-interred.” You’re so funny, Tina, even when you’re being wise – what a great combination! Thank you for your comment. The distinction between sympathy and empathy is a useful one because the nuances make all the difference. There are many things that don’t require sympathy but very little that can’t use the benefit of empathy’s understanding. It’s a old, creaky adage – the putting of oneself in another’s shoes – but it’s one that’s stood the test of time and resonates even more during these days of divisiveness and antipathy (another “pathy” to consider!). I’m not kidding when I say it could solve the world’s woes. Would that enough people valued it. Thanks for reading and commenting…I so appreciate it. LDW

  • neyce Says:

    Thanks a lot for the wonderful perspective on this issue in politics and in life. We all need to express and extend more empathy towards each other.

    LDW Reply:

    Thank you, Neyce. I agree. Appreciate the comment. LDW

  • Zachary Benscoter Says:

    Is it that simple? Maybe. I read a lot of articles and see the kinds of comments people leave…we live in a mean nasty world. but maybe empathy is the missing ingredient. I’m don’t know. Listen to Rush and hannity and you think there can’t be much more hate to throw around. You make some good points. wonder how many people bother to listen?

    LDW Reply:

    I don’t think simplicity necessarily applies to this topic. But I do think, if you boil it all down to one element, empathy has to be it. I agree about the comments we too often find after articles. I talk about it all the time: how the anonymity, the forum of the internet, has unleashed the really bad behavior, horrific manners, and sometimes truly hideous thought processes of too many people. If you only read those you’d wonder if there was a hope for the world. But I truly believe the wiser minds don’t necessarily take the time to comment (wish that they would!) and so things seem more unbalanced than they truly are. I appreciate, Zachary, that you read and commented. Even your questioning offers hope…if we question what wrongs we see around us, our eyes are opened to what needs to be fixed. Keep questioning. LDW

  • Sylvia Silveria Says:

    Thoughtful article. Talking about things not enough people talk about. Thank you. You did a superb job.

    LDW Reply:

    Thank you, Sylvia. LDW