Friday, July 6, 2012

The Opposite of Empathy

em·pa·thy   [em-puh-thee]  
Definition:  The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Antonyms: apathy, misunderstanding, unfeelingness

I read an article a few years ago that cited a study that sought to find the most basic and universal human emotion.  I can't remember what they were trying to prove that it was, but what they determined was that empathy is the universal emotion that all humans are born with.  (Side note: I tried, but could not find that article again.  However, if you Google 'empathy in babies,' you can find references to this type of study.)

Obviously, not every person is empathetic.  Babies can outgrow empathy for a variety of reasons.  Lately, though, I've been wondering if some people are purposely taught to not show empathy.  I mean, I can understand that people in some circumstances would lose empathy pretty easily.  Children who are abused or neglected are not shown empathy and those scars can wreak havoc on psychological wellness.  I'm not talking about those people.  I'm talking about people who seem to be okay, to whom nothing terrible or abusive has happened, who live an "average" life, yet seem completely incapable of feeling even a tiny twinge of empathy.

I get that with different life experiences people have different points of view, different thoughts, different opinions, and different ideas.  What I do not get is making the leap from, "Well, we disagree." to "Well, you are a terrible person because you disagree with me."  We've all seen it or heard it or even experienced it over the past couple years.  Disagreements quickly turn into stereo-typing, name-calling, demonizing, and worse.

This concerns me for many reasons, but mostly because it seems many of us have lost our ability to empathize with others.  To me it seems that some have even been taught that empathy is wrong or bad or should be avoided at all cost.  It seems some think there is no way we should try to put ourselves in the proverbial shoes of someone else or try to see a situation from their perspective.  Why should we?  We know everything, understand everything, and have it all right.  If someone thinks differently from us or their life is different from ours, they are bad and it is all their fault. There are people I encounter or see in the news who seem to have been taught all of the above.

What baffles me about this is that, with as many choices as we have in life and as much as I believe in personal responsibility, there are so many things out of our control.  For example, I did not choose my parents, and yet I have amazing parents.  I did not choose where I was born, and yet I was born in a location that is comparatively safe and offers a decent amount of opportunity.  Conversely, there are many born to parents who do not want to be parents and in places that are dangerous and where opportunity is scarce.  Some are born privileged and some are born relatively privileged  and some are born with nothing.

Thinking about all this reminded me of a blog post I read recently over here at this link.  As soon as I read the following sentence, I knew I would remember it forever:  "At its heart, recognizing privilege is simply recognizing that your life experience is NOT universal." - Dianna Anderson  This is exactly what I'm getting at.  Other people have not lived the same life I have lived.  If they disagree with me on something, they have that right.  Yes, it is difficult sometimes when I do not understand why someone could think about something so radically different from the way I think about it.  Yes, it can feel like criticism or even rejection when someone expresses a difference of opinion.  However, if I don't at least try to see where another person is coming from, if I can't empathize despite disagreement, where does that leave me?

Perhaps you're someone who was told (and then believed) that you were going straight to hell if you accepted a certain type of person... that the only way for you to be true to your beliefs was to hate certain other people. I get that, as I have sometimes been guilty of believing what I was told instead of what I knew to be true.  I understand how fear can cloud our judgement.  But what if, for just a second, you set that aside?  What if you pretended/imagined/visualized that things were not the way you've always been told and tried to think about something from the perspective of someone with a totally different life experience?  What if you could really try to feel what it must be like to live and function in that experience?  Would it be so easy to hate/condemn/reject them?

I feel like I am kind of rambling now, but I have been thinking about this so much lately that I had to write about it, even if it is a long, ramble-y, post.  I just wish that we could all take a step back from our own experience and practice empathy.  To  me, living in apathy, misunderstanding,and unfeelingness seems like a pretty unpleasant alternative to taking the time at least try to identify with the feeling, thoughts, attitudes, and  experience of others.  Think of how different things could be if we would stop embracing the opposite of empathy.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Trischa!
    This is the weirdest thing, but I feel like you were in my head with this post. I'm actually considering writing a similar blog post, myself.

    I've been so struck lately with this question of "Why was I born in this nation, during this time, and why do I have such a rich life, when I could have been born anywhere else?"

    I'm certainly grateful for the life that I've been given, the parents I have, and the opportunities that are given to me, but recently, I've been wrestling with the fact that my experiences, beliefs, traditions, and ideals are different than so many others- and that's a product of location and timing. Nothing else. I've also begun to realize that someone who lives in a different country has equally beautiful and meaningful traditions and beliefs. I see a lot of American arrogance, and have myself been a part of that at times, but as I get older I want to rid myself of that pride, and recognize more and more that I am not different than the woman in Iraq, who loves her family desperately, and cries out to a God that she believes in, just like I do. We were born in different places, but the same things are important to us. It sure makes me hate war and politics, when you actually see that someone is just the same as you.

    Anyway, that was a long way to say that I agree 100% with you. Empathy is so important and gives us a different lens. A lens that makes us see how similar we are, not how different we are.

    Thanks for an awesome post!