Whatever Happened to Empathy?

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I came to an awareness of God at an age when absolutes were as black and white as they come, because, at 12, you know everything and Lord A’mighty  are you self righteous about it?  It wasn’t my idea to start going to church; that distinction belongs to my parents who loaded us up in the car every Sunday morning for church they both still attend.  I  figured if I was going to have to do this against my will, then I was going to know everything about it.

I read the bible from cover to cover and took the words I read to heart.  I get that God can be a vindictive SOB but it seems to me that Jesus spent his entire life exhorting his flock  “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”  Almost everything about the first half of the New Testament is about Jesus taking care of people, whether its turning water into wine at a wedding party,  living among “deplorables” like Mary Magdalene, throwing greedy Pharisees out of the temple, or sacrificing his life to give others a chance at eternal life,  empathy was his calling card and, as much as possible, I wanted it to be mine too.

Studies show that around 2000, empathy, as a human construct, has gone out of fashion.  In an article in Psychology Today written in 2018 where the collective sacrifices of a nation after World War Two were considered essential, “the mood in America today, where almost all discourse is uncivil, whether online, on cable television or on the debate stage, the utter lack of empathy becomes apparent. Nobody cares to calm down, to consider what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes, to entertain the notion that others may feel the way they do for reasons that are understandable and valid. Instead today’s America, from our presidential candidates to our blogosphere and major media, more often thrives on outrage, emotion, and personal attacks.”

Researchers are divided on the origins of empathy.  Some argue its learned, others believe its genetic, some point to the internet, to social media, to video games and to politics to explain why people feel justified in their judgements of others in a way I can’t begin to comprehend.

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I don’t want to imagine a world without empathy, and maybe that’s because putting myself in someone else’s shoes is such an integral part of who I am.  I feel driven to see things from someone else’s perspective, even when I am the target of misplaced emotions and even when I am not always gracious in my reaction to those emotions.

Protests, like the one in Denver, where people turned out en masse to block the entrance to a Denver hospital to demand the state “reopen” must be terrifying when you’ve based your entire identity on idea that America is the greatest country in the history of mankind, yet we are, knee deep in unemployment claims, without adequate testing, without the support of the federal government for anything from masks to ventilators, with stimulus checks delayed, small business loans going straight to the companies who often need them the least (and who admit they will not be used as intended), while average Americans go hungry, businesses fail, farmers dump milk and produce, and in the process, the enemy becomes Dr. Anthony Fauci, for advocating on behalf of science, medical professionals who have risked their lives to beat back the virus have to stand down protestors instead of doing their jobs, and no one thinks, if our economy is so great, and America is so great, then why are WE, among the advanced nations of the world, fighting for our lives while Jeff Bezos buys a $165 million dollar house in Beverly Hills and a $16 million dollar apartment in New York in the middle of a pandemic while asking people to donate to his humanitarian causes when he could alleviate the suffering of millions and still have more money than any human on the planet.  But since it doesn’t affect him, and because his bottom line is currently thriving, what does he care about the needs of others?

There was a study after World War Two regarding the emotional impact violence had on three groups of people;  those who witnessed violence  first hand, those who knew someone who witnessed violence first hand and those who heard about death and destruction from the radio or in the newspaper.  Those who witnessed violence first hand were passionate advocates against war, while people in the second and third groups were passionate advocates FOR war.   After all, if you didn’t actually SEE the destruction first hand, then it might not have been as bad as you heard, right?

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t that hard to do, but it does require asking yourself what you would like someone to do for you if you were in an impossible position.  I do a lot of what I do for others because I ask myself that question all the time.  Would someone be there for me if I lost my home, if I was desperate for food, if there was no money to pay my bills, and quite frankly, I am driven to do for others because I honestly feel that, if it came right down to it, no one would be there for me.  I’m not sure why I feel that way.  God knows plenty of people have stepped up over the past few weeks to provide me with the resources I need to help make sure the kids in my county, seventy percent of whom under the age of 17, live below the poverty line.

I was on my way to the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago and when the young man seated on the plane beside me started chatting with me over dinner, he brought up the health care battle and how unfair he thought it was that his tax dollars went to poor people who didn’t take care of themselves.  I gently volunteered that I helped pay the school lunch bill in our county because school lunch is often the only hot meal the kids in my county get, and he immediately said that by offering to make sure the lunch bill was paid, I was contributing to the problem of hand-outs in my community.  This young man, a Kennedy, by the way, who bragged about his relationship with a Georgia debutante, said I was encouraging parents to negate their responsibilities to their children by helping out the less fortunate.

In my world helping others out when I can isn’t absolving them of their responsibilities.  I grew up poor, often eating war rations when our food stamps ran out.  My father worked as hard as he could to take care of us, and my mother got a job as a waitress, but it still wasn’t enough.  If I hadn’t received grants and loans for college, I would never have been able to afford to go.  Stopping to ask myself how I can help someone who is struggling when there’s no clear benefit to my life beyond feeling good about stepping up makes my life better.  When Michael had a set of drums we were having a hard time selling, we asked a friend’s husband, a music teacher at a middle school in Hendersonville, if he could use the drums in his classroom.  He said no, but he knew a promising student who desperately wanted a set of drums, so we immediately decided to give a boy we don’t know and have never met what he needed to pursue his dream.

So when I see comments like the ones I did yesterday on Jarrett Kemp’s facebook page (she is one of Governor Brian Kemp’s daughters) savaging a teenaged girl for coming to her father’s defense, it broke my heart. In defending her family from the perspective of a young girl who wants to believe her father is a good guy, I thought, what on earth do people get out of being mean to HER because her father is a dick?  Take it out on Brian Kemp, but for Gods sakes, ask yourself how you would feel if your child offered a passionate defense of YOU and people ripped her limb from limb because no one wants to take a moment to truly ask themselves the question, “For the Grace of God there go I.”

I know people are frustrated and scared and I wish those lashing out at Dr. Fauci, and medical professionals, and scientists stopped to ask themselves, if this country IS so great, what does it say to you that your senators and representatives think helping you out after all your decades of hard work and sacrifice will make you lazy and dependent the instant you get a $1200 check five weeks into lockdown?  What does it tell you about your elected officials when they get free health care, but free (or even affordable health care) for you is “socialism?”  And why is it okay for the police department or the fire department to show up without asking you for a financial statement first to see if your house is worth saving or the crime committed against you is worth committing? How is that not socialism?  And how would YOU feel if your grandmother was struggling to breathe and you were trapped in traffic, able to see the hospital, but not able to get there?

When my grandfather came back from World War Two and my grandparents married and moved to California, every Friday night everyone in their apartment complex would gather so everyone could eat.  I see a LOT of people stepping up to do the right thing by other Americans, but I also see a complete lack of empathy among certain sectors of the United States that seem to feel,  if the coronavirus hasn’t affected me, then MY civil liberties are being trampled on and that is unconscionable.  Who cares if people die as long as I can get my hair cut or go bowling?  That’s easy to say when you think it can’t or won’t happen to you or to someone you love.

But having been in two of three hot spots (New York and California) the week before the country shut down, and without a single symptom, I thought about the man across the street who is 85, about the single mother who manages our local grocery store, about friends who have cancer and can’t get treatment, either because they are afraid of going to the hospital, or because hospitals can’t handle the additional patient load, or a girlfriend of mine who wasn’t able to be with her father when he died in an emergency room without his family around him.

And that’s where empathy comes in.  It doesn’t have to happen to me for me to do the right thing.  It just has to happen to someone who’s life could be irreparably harmed by my decision to do as I damned well please.  Putting myself in someone else’s shoes is never asking too much.  It just means I have to stop thinking about myself for a minute.