Is Empathy Still Alive?

“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us….As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier….[W]e live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained, a culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

 I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern…because you have an obligation to yourself because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown.”

- President Barack Obama's 2006 commencement speech to Northwestern graduates

Empathy, in its most basic sense, is the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. Some commentators have identified empathy as one of the most important skills of the 21st century, while it has been touted by many, including President Obama, as the key to bridging the political divide to tackle some of the most pertinent issues facing America today. Neuroscientists have identified certain regions of the brain that predispose humans, and other animals, to empathy, while philosophers, as early as David Hume and Adam Smith, have viewed a concept similar to empathy as one of the integral underpinnings of morality and ethics.

However, empathy does not always persevere. As Ute Frevert, German historian of emotions, once put it, “The fact that human beings are naturally equipped to feel what others feel does not mean they always do so. They might just turn away and act indifferent.” Or worse.

Empathy is balanced by a seeming counterforce called the ego, which allows us to understand how we are separate from the rest of the world, in other words – it is the portion of human consciousness that reflects on one's self in relation to the world and others, in terms of self-esteem, acceptance, empathy, and a coherent self-concept. This plays out in ways that can greatly affect, not only our social interactions and development as a society, but also political growth, problem-solving, collaboration and compromise. A 2011 CNN article (Is the Internet Killing Empathy?, Gary Small, M.D. and Gigi Vorgan, Special to CNN, February 18, 2011) proposed that the Internet’s “all access” (and I suggest, impersonal and detached) approach de-sensitizes individuals to life and reduces the ability to empathize. Referring to a public tragedy caught on tape, the authors noted that “[p]eople couldn’t turn away…drawn often by a subconscious fear that the same thing could happen to us. By observing it in other people, we have our own experience of it, but at an emotional distance. The more we observe terrifying events happening to other people, the more they reinforce our sense of denial and detachment: It can’t happen to us.”

After being asked to challenge the graduating class at Northwestern, even if just for 30 minutes as they entered the "real world," President Obama quoted scripture, Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.” This reminds me of something my husband, Kyle, told me yesterday while we were talking about the past week. He had said:

“The best part of my day is watching [our oldest daughter] play soccer. Watching kids play, unburdened, completely innocent of everything. They don’t see any evil or hardship or any of the worries that burden adults. I can see back to when I was that age, before I lost that innocence. At a [recent] tournament, just for a day, everything was a little bit better. You don’t think about tragedy or what is missing. You are just in that moment, the innocence of the other children. In a way, it is their gift back to us.”

I think about watching these girls playing soccer. When one falls, the other stops, reaches her hand out and lifts the other up. The innate instinct to care for one another, even at the risk of “the win.” Though different positions, they work together as a team. Their ego gives way, in the passion of life, and a common connection guides them through the game. One misguided kick, another falls, and there is a hand outstretched. “You hurt. We are one. Let me help you.” Our job as parents is to ensure that our children keep this innate beauty and innocence, empathy, as long as possible. And to mirror it in ourselves.

I think of Ben. Young babies, it is empathy at its purest. The way his chubby hand touched others, so softly, with a tentative regard, as if he understood that any touch would initiate ripples that could affect something greater than himself, another’s life, even if he could not see it at the time. Ripples, to waves, which merge into torrents, oceans that can save or destroy. Many children sense their social responsibility, before they are burdened by the demands of adult life, the pressures of the ego, of career, family, friends. As politicians, spouses, parents, friends, children, leaders, employees, it is not about the result, i.e. the “win,” but about the “how” – how one lives, setting an ethical example for those who are watching, to build bridges, to shine a light on pathways forward, together.

So, I propose - Yes, empathy is alive and well.

I see it each day in my child’s eye, in the touch of another human’s hand, a hug, phone call, support. I feel it in the possibility of politicians and regulators coming together to listen, understand, think and talk. It may be rare, and it may be hard, but it is indeed alive.