Where has our empathy gone?
Where is the common ground to bridge the dire issues dividing us?
Can we find this place of understanding?
On one hand, we marvel at how people unite during a crisis like the Las Vegas massacre last week.
Even as an itinerant gambler continued spraying bullets on concertgoers, Dean McAuley headed back into the gunman’s view to rescue victims. The Seattle firefighter, a veteran attendee of the country music festival, told some friends, “I’ve got to go to work.”
Such bravery and selflessness are remarkable. It lifts us momentarily, demonstrating the core natures of many everyday people who care about their neighbors, and strangers, and rise to the challenge.
We can only care so much.
Yet we suffer from compassion fatigue. We’re ground down by the news of another shooting, another act of terrorism—both homegrown and distant—another black driver targeted by police, another march by white supremacists. We can only care so much.
Despair seems to reign. We identify heroes and evildoers rather than bridge the divides of experience, class, or race to get at the core systemic forces that erupt every other news cycle. We don’t bother trying to listen to the other side.
Those outside of our circles may be seen as “disposables” or “deplorables.” Where is this taking us?
Instead, “What we need is an empathy epidemic,” authors Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz wrote in 2011.
That declaration is more salient today than ever.
Empathy, after all, means standing in another’s shoes. We feel their plight; we understand. To some degree, we step outside of our prior experience and prejudices to engage theirs.
You feel sorry ‘with’ them, not just ‘for’ them.
It’s well known that empathetic people are often generous, have happier relationships, greater well-being, and maybe better leaders and communicators.
“When you sympathize, while you understand what others are going through, you don’t necessarily feel it yourself right now, though you may be moved to help nonetheless,” Perry and Szalavitz remind us in Born for Love.
“Pity—or feeling sorry for someone—similarly captures this idea of recognizing another’s pain without simultaneously experiencing a sense of it oneself. With empathy, however, you feel the other person’s pain. You’re feeling sorry ‘with’ them, not just ‘for’ them.”
Recent advances in neuroscience help explain how the brain circuit is wired for empathy. Some brain areas become activated when we see other people experience a sensation—besides experiencing it ourselves.
However, at times this circuitry seems overrun by fear, distrust, or our inability to reach beyond self-interest. Recently, empathy has been criticized as being overrated and biased, such as when we react only to violent crime that occurs locally and fail to connect to broader forces.
To me, being empathetic also suggests that along with feeling “with” others, we act on this knowledge in some meaningful way.
Reflecting on the horror of Las Vegas, I’ve been reading varied perspectives the past days—many of them very thoughtful. Besides what you may agree is a justified cynicism that America will ever reduce gun violence—after school children were slaughtered in Sandy Hook, so-called leaders do nothing?—there may be a path forward.
A bridge connecting two sides of a chasm in the national debate.
I wonder if the conversation around sensible gun control needs to be led by gun owners who enjoy hunting or are otherwise responsible, as this recent article suggests. As the writer from Oregon said, “We’re the bridge that connects the two sides of the chasm in the national debate.” Rather than ardent gun control advocates and opportunists yelling across the divide against NRA lobbyists and Second Amendment fear-mongers.
To cross that chasm, all sides of this debate need to step beyond our orientations and listen closely—if not feel—the other side.
Rather than shutting down as a coping mechanism, or “reducing our reaction to emotional stimuli,” as another article puts it, we can choose to reach out.
I’m not suggesting we try to empathize with the Las Vegas shooter, or other perpetrators—regardless of whether his motives will ever truly be known.
I suggest we double back and rediscover what empathy means—in our individual lives, and what we want as a society. And act on it. The leadership cult and elites won’t do it for us.
One example of this comes in this excerpt from my forthcoming book, Especially For You, which will be published later this month.
In “This Defiance for Peace,” the brother of a New York firefighter who was killed during 9/11 and two friends find ways to act following other mass attacks that demonstrate their remorse for victims in a constructive way.
“This response, this defiance for peace, is really interesting,” says David Paine, the co-founder of 9/11 Day, a nonprofit that facilitates remembrance and service projects during each year.
How can more of us reach this place of understanding?
Brack, Ken. (2017). Especially For You. Kingston, MA. Float Tide Publishing.