Empathy Lost

"Self-focus is ultimately an empty experience. Just as a life lived without others is but a shadow of a deep, meaningful existence, a society without empathy is a shallow and troubled one."
~ Jeanne Twenge

When we look at the pains in life and the things that bring us the most amount of discomfort, we can usually trace it back to a lack of empathy in others.  Though empathy is a word that we have all heard of and is often misused in theory, the loss of it has caused immeasurable damage.  We need empathy in order to avoid causing pains that are avoidable.  We are born with the capacity to show empathy.  However, depending on what has been modeled to us and what we have experienced will dictate the level of empathy that we give to others.

Empathy can be defined as the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.  When we are infants we need our parents to tend to our needs and feel our emotions.  Once we become toddlers we need our parents to help us understand our feelings and give them proper names.  It is important to allow children to feel the full gamut of emotions so that they can learn to properly identify them and apply them.  No emotion should be demonized.  Parents just need to help their children learn to behave properly no matter what the emotion is.  The teaching of properly identifying, fully feeling and learning how to show emotions is an education that must be taught until adulthood. Because many have missed this education we have a society that is ill equipped to empathize with each other.

It would seem that empathy has all but been lost.  Many no longer desire to feel what others feel.  We no longer want to put our feelings aside and feel another's feelings. There are several reasons why we struggle with empathy. One reason is our fear of feeling our own emotions. How can I feel yours if I don't allow myself to feel my own? We have to become comfortable with the whole range of feelings and not try to suppress them or allow our defense mechanisms to cover them. The second reason is we are so consumed with our own agendas that we are always fighting to make sure we are heard. We have lost the art of communication. We are so afraid of not being validated that we don't validate others. Thirdly, we have stopped allowing our common humanity to be the link that connects us. Lastly, we have lost sight of the biblical truth to do unto others what we would have them do unto us. This lies at the heart of empathy.

I shall expand on each of the four reasons of why we have lost empathy.  Firstly, our fear of feeling our own emotions.  So many people have been taught, either directly or indirectly, that to feel and embrace your feelings is a sign of weakness.  We have been taught to cover and hide.  You know we are in a bad state when we can't even feel when we are alone. I have dealt with many clients that can't even cry when they desperately want to cry.  In our efforts to be strong, we have become very weak and fearful.  Whatever you are afraid of rules you.  Allow yourself to feel!  Stop and identify what emotions you are processing.  Find new ways to label them and not see them as bad or weak.  Teach your children to feel and when you discipline, teach them that their actions create feelings in others. 

Our selfishness is one of the biggest reasons why we are not empathic.  When you are aware of your relational insecurities and you remain conscious of them, you can relax when you are communicating with others.  When we are not mindful we stay in a perpetual state of defending and fighting to be most important.  The art of communication entails speaking without offending and listening without defending.  When my words attack, I make whomever I am speaking to defensive.  So if we can start with speaking respectfully then we can help others to listen without defending.  When I listen defensively, I stop hearing the fullness of the conversation because all I am thinking about is how to defend myself. 

Our humanness should connect us.  The very fact that we all have commonness should make us more empathic to the plight of each other.  We all have a different story and have diverse life experiences; but at the core, we all share in the same feelings.   As I tell my clients, pain is pain.  Sadness is sadness.  Rejection is rejection.  Though the way we came to experience these emotions is different, the core of the emotion is the same.  This common thread of humanity must be the glue that binds us.  When I no longer see you as similar and connected to me based solely on the fact that we are both human, we will continue to hurt, wound and devastate each other.  The truth is that we are extremely different, yet extremely alike. 

Lastly, yet not least, we would all do the world and ourselves some good if we simply listened to Jesus' words. In Luke 6:31 he states, "Do to others as you would have them do to you."  This simple golden rule has been affirmed so many times, yet we seem to always forget it in our interactions with each other.  If we can keep at the forefront of our minds, "let me treat you, as I want you to treat me," our relationships would have minimal damage.  Let me add, when Christ stated this it was not just for the people who you loved and have an intimate relationship with.  This rule was for all of humanity.  So when you are on the street, in the store, at work you are to treat others, as you want them to treat you. 

Let's decide to invest in each other.  Let's decide to care about the way people feel and the plight of those around us.  Let's decide to lower our defenses and allow others to care for us.  We must choose to take the risk and feel our feelings and share them with others around us.  If someone chooses to take that risk with you, please empathize with him or her.  You don't need to solve it, just feel it.   I love the passage of scripture that states for us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  Feel each other!  Participate in life with each other.  We can change this world if each of us decided, "I will choose to empathize with my fellow man."