When I was a kid empathy, sharing, and kindness were virtues. Now they seem to be in short supply. What’s led to a decline in Empathy?
The Sin of Empathy?
Not long ago on Twitter there was someone who said that empathy was a sin. I’m not going to link or give that thought any more air than it already received, which was more than it should have. I’m also not going to talk about theology here, although I will say I’ve already discussed the core of Christianity here, and empathy is a must.
The thing I want to talk about is the fact that this was neither a view that was completely dismissed or a view that’s isolated. It seems we’ve taken a turn that has led to a decline in empathy, and it’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
To see what I mean, let’s start at the beginning.
Grade School Basics
You may have heard the poem All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten or the related book. In the poem, the author talks about the basics.
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone…
These are the ethics I grew up with. They were built around empathy. They were built around the golden rule.
Today, there are too many pervasive views that counter this – that promote a decline in empathy. Unfortunately, what used to be fringe, has become mainstream. It seems that the psychological proximity effect is making it grow. It has weeded its way into our thinking.
A Decline in Empathy
We used to talk about sharing. Now we focus on “keeping what’s ours”. We were told to play fair but have leaders who stonewall, bully, and simply disregard others. We were told not to hit people but elected a president who incited people to do it, offering to pay legal bills.
These aren’t fringe. These are supported by a large percentage of the population.
Whatever happened to empathy and helping others, like those who are fleeing persecution? Whatever happened to empathy and focusing on feeding everyone instead of figuring out if they’re worthy? Whatever happened to caring about people even if they weren’t us or didn’t think like us?
Whatever happened to fighting for justice for the oppressed and taking care of our fellow human beings? What has led to a decline in empathy and how do we stop it?
A Return to Empathy
If you believe that we should care about each other and work to make the world a better place for all of us, then here are the things that we must keep in mind.
- Focus on Empathy. Is your goal to help your fellow humans or something else? We need to start by focusing on empathy. Positions that focus on revenge, retribution, or comeuppance are not only not productive; they aren’t healthy. That has a lot to do with why we are here.
- Focus on Solutions, Not Problems. Those who wish to divide us prey on us by getting us to fight about the things that don’t matter. We all want everyone to have a house. That’s empathy. When someone proposes a solution that we don’t agree with, our gut reaction is to fight them. That’s focusing on the problem. Instead, focus on offering a different solution. If you don’t have a solution, then it’s time to keep your opinion to yourself until you can learn enough to offer a solution.
- Focus on the Golden Rule. Always always always look to how we can treat others as we want to be treated. If you were struggling and unable to find shelter, how would you want to be treated? If you were dealing with substance abuse and someone was wondering how to increase your motivation to build healthy habits, what would work? Empathy is not only necessary, but a super power for changing the world.
Although we might be seeing a decline in empathy, we can return to empathy if we focus on empathy itself, focus on solutions, not problems, and focus on treating others as we want to be treated. It would even be a good idea to do one thing every day that promotes empathy.
After all, empathy is what we were taught from an early age and what will help us live a long and healthy life.