The idea of empathy has sparked a lot of interest in recent years, especially with the discovery that humans are neurologically wired to feel it. It is one thing to be aware of the concept of empathy and quite another to understand the importance of it in bringing about positive changes – not just on an individual level. Empathy isn’t just about “being nice”; it has the potential to change human interaction on a mass, collective scale.
1. Resolving The Big Conflicts
Think about the major social conflicts around the world – debates over LGBT rights, religious intolerance, feminism – how many of those could be alleviated if there was more of an effort to understand the motivations and values of the opposing side? Empathy may not provide a clear-cut solution, but listening to others in order to consider the circumstances from their point of view could help individuals realise that other people’s beliefs are as important as their own, thus promoting respect, fairness and a greater capacity for peaceful coexistence.
In this respect, there have been some fantastic efforts at empathising. For example, despite being brought up in a conservative, Christian environment, Timothy Kurekwent out of his way to empathise with the gay community by pretending to be gay for a year; in an interview, he revealed: “I was taught that gays and lesbians were sinners, that homosexuality was abominable and that gay people couldn’t be Christians…I tried to convert any gay people I met. In fact, I had a childhood friend who came out of the closet and his mother phoned me, asking me to save him by preaching at him. He ended up becoming one of my best friends…The fact is, in my previous state, there was no way I was going to listen to gay people.”
There are also efforts to resolve religious conflicts, such as Hello Peace, a telephone service that gives Arabs and Jews an opportunity to talk to those “on the other side” about reconciliation, tolerance and peace. In terms of women’s rights, take a look at this short film that depicts a sexist society in which men are the discriminated gender. Empathy has even contributed to the abolition of slavery in the UK during the late 1780s.
2. Patients Are People, Not Just Broken Bodies
Empathy in healthcare providers is particularly important to promote patient recovery. Many studies have shown that empathetic doctors are associated with more positive outcomes for their patients. This touching video on empathy, shared by CEO Toby Cosgrove, MD with the Cleveland Clinic staff, highlights the idea that patient care cannot be reduced to the simple healing of tissue damage, but must take into consideration other aspects of the patient’s life.
3. What About The Environment?
Empathy in terms of environmental issues does not mean you need to empathise with a tree! Rather, it involves empathising with the people of the future. It may be difficult to imagine the situation for those who have yet to exist, and it is reason that tells us that the welfare of future generations must be taken into account to ensure the survival of our species. BUT, it may be that putting ourselves in the shoes of the future generation can effectively inspire us to clean up our act and to make use of sustainable energy sources.
Okay, So Empathy IS Important…But What Happens Next?
A lot has been said on why empathy matters, but less on how to go about increasing empathy levels in society. Roman Krznaric advocates the idea of an Empathy Revolution, which is a revolution not in the traditional sense of overthrowing laws and governments, but a revolution in human interaction. The ingredients for such a revolution include training our youth on being empathetic, meeting different people to challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, harnessing the power of social networking and so on.
There is also the issue of why some people respond to certain tragedies but not to others – long term and large scale issues such as starvation, lack of education and income inequality seem to be ignored in comparison to the murders and scandals that make it to newspaper headlines. A way to combat the lack of empathy may be to provide for the target audience an identifiable victim. As the economist Thomas Schelling noted: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their check-books.”
Still, It’s Impossible To Empathise With 7 Billion Strangers!!
While extending our sense of compassion from the close circle of our friends and family to the rest of humanity is certainly an achievement, it is inevitably impossible to empathise with strangers to the same extent as those who you regularly interact with. The point is to cultivate the notion that even if we cannot completely empathise with people on the other side of the world, their lives are just as valuable as the lives of our loved ones. Rationality isn’t enough – after all, psychopaths can recognise what decisions society would deem as “morally correct”; they simply have no incentive to choose that option. Ultimately it is empathy which ignites a sense of concern for others other than ourselves that is crucial to bringing about action that will lead to humanity’s progress, for the better.
Via Jim Manske