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On Empathy Famine

So the other day I was watching Days of Future Past, and in that scene where Professor X talks about how much pain there was…my immediate reaction was, “Oh please! Suck it up…”

And I knew I had a problem.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I’ve heard more than one person from my generation say we’ve become so jaded, we’re incapable of empathizing with others. There’s an interesting animation on the distinction between empathy and sympathy here as told by Brene Brown, and unfortunately, I feel we have a famine in both, and I’ve been trying to think about reasons why;

  1. Too Much Information

We’re the generation that got catapulted into a world where news and information accompanied us in our pocketses (as Gollum would say). I don’t need to list all the worldwide tragedies our generation watched on the screens, but it is true that we have seen a lot and we have felt a lot. So maybe this jadedness is a sort of adapted coping mechanism, where we protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by this tsunami of sadness by the state of the world. Or maybe our threshold has just dramatically shifted and with every sad piece of news it simply becomes harder and harder to feel.

2. Self-Absorbed

The other day I was talking to someone who spent her life being socially correct. She did things for people, helped them when they were down, etc…then one day, she went through a trying experience, and nobody was there for her and she came to say, “I got to see the true nature of people.”

And it made me feel sad, because not only were people’s reaction NOT “I’m sorry, I know how you feel.” It felt more like, “Thank God we’re not in your shoes.”

But it made me question, maybe it’s because we’ve become so self-absorbed, we really find it hard to look beyond our tiny lives to find and wear the shoes of others and walk a mile in them.

3. Labeling

As a Muslim, I know exactly what it feels like to be labeled and practically blamed for the heinous crimes of a few. We use stereotyping to drive disconnection between each other. Labeling is the first step to dehumanization. People start being seen not as people but as nouns and numbers.

So How To Rebuild Empathy?

I still don’t know how to rebuild empathy, which is why I’m writing this. If you have any ideas, then leave them in the comment.

So far, I’ve been trying to do the following;

  • Acknowledge we are wired for empathy and connection
  • I try to listen more than I talk, and not just listen to the words being said, but to the silence between the words being said.
  • Read Empathy: Why It Matters by Roman Krznaric
  • Stop reading the news daily. It seems counter intuitive, but the divulge of news is what caused the jadedness to begin with so I only read the news occasionally.
  • When I do read the news, I stop for a second and internalize the stories. As a writer, I try to humanize the people in the stories using my imagination. Sometimes news reports do that for us, but when they don’t, I stop for a second and imagine what’s it like to live as those people in the news. So maybe if I’m reading about something that’s happening in Syria, I give the story characters, and give the characters names, and give them dreams and ambitions, needs and wants…

So what other tips do you have for building empathy/sympathy/compassion? Leave them in the comment below.

Last but not least, I leave you a quote by Professor X; 

It’s not their pain you’re afraid of. It’s yours, Charles. And as frightening as it can be, that pain will make you stronger. If you allow yourself to feel it, embrace it, it will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. it’s the greatest gift we have; to bear their pain without breaking. And it comes from the most human part of us; hope.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Tweet me @ahechoes to let me know.

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