Empathy – A Lost Art?

An article in my Sunday local paper really caught me by surprise. It said that “Empathy is SO yesterday,” meaning that young people today don’t care much about it. Empathy is something wasted on us old folks, and the kids of today simply don’t have the time nor inclination to devote any energy to it.

What – no longer a need for empathy? Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Empathy basically applies to someone who works to understand what another person is feeling or experiencing. When someone is in pain, we empathize with their pain and we feel it too, and we show empathy to that other person.

So the article basically says that the current culture and the younger people of today no longer feel the need to identify with someone else’s thoughts, feelings or attitudes. Given the interconnectedness of all of us with one another, this seems like a dangerous proposition to me.

Isn’t relationship all about trying to understand where someone else is coming from? Isn’t the point of interacting to learn what someone else is feeling, thinking or experiencing, and to try and understand that other person’s perspective? If we stop doing this altogether, then aren’t we at risk of being completely isolated from every other human being?

The Five Secrets that I speak about and write about rely on having people actually care about what another person says, does and feels. The underpinning is that we HAVE to care. We have to be interested and put our energy into learning what is really going on with someone else. If we simply don’t care, we lose all ability to connect and grow our relationships.

When we don’t empathize, and we don’t try and understand – that’s when it becomes so easy for us to separate ourselves from others and see them as “the bad guy.” This is where bullying comes into play, or road rage and random acts of anger. If I’m separate from you, and I care nothing about you, I don’t have a conscience when it comes to you. It makes it easy for me to depersonalize you and everything associated with you.

Caring, kindness and empathy are the foundations upon which good relationships are built. The truth is that we all feel the same kind of pain in life –loneliness, guilt, anger, frustration, hopelessness or despair. We all feel the same kind of hopefulness over conditions that might change, or happiness we encounter from our relationships or something we’ve done well. Our experiences may be different, but often times our emotional response is the same. By definition, this means that we can understand one another’s pain and pleasure.

This week, see yourself as part of the larger whole. Work on being the Interested Observer who watches what happens with others, and tries to understand whence they come. By identifying with another’s emotions and feelings we don’t lose anything of ourselves; rather we gain a connectedness with another.