Can you teach empathy? Is it an innate sense we’re all born with, or is it something you learn? Why is it that some people are unable to sympathize with a situation they haven’t personally experienced? Even worse, why are some people unable to sympathize with a situation they have experienced, but not when it’s affecting someone else? Somewhere along the way, society decided that empathy was optional, and people just…shrugged and went along with it (in the future I’m gonna have a lot to say about the “shrug and go along with it” crowd).

When you think about empathy, you’re probably thinking about huge, tragic events…being able to feel sorry for a person that’s gone through an impactful situation like losing a job, a death in the family, or something of similar magnitude, but that’s all at the extreme end. Empathy starts with the countless autopilot interactions we have with each other:

  • Say you just got out of work and you make your way to the bus stop; there’s about 30 people waiting, lined up/clustered by the pickup point. As the bus appears in the distance, a person seemingly appears out of nowhere and makes his or her way to the front of the crowd to get on the bus first. This situation isn’t unique in any way, and it’s something you see on a regular basis if you use public transportation. Yet what’s that person’s mindset? “I see this crowd that’s been waiting longer than I have…should I line up behind them? No, I’m going to go to the front so I can get on first.” The questions this person isn’t considering are “Why am I more important? Why is it imperative that I get on the bus before everyone else that was waiting here?” In a vacuum, there’s no real impact outside of everyone else having to wait an additional five seconds or so to get on the bus. And yet, it’s an example of a person not considering how his or her decision affects others (or maybe worse, considering and not caring).
  • You’re driving down the highway, moderate traffic, and an exit is coming up. All of a sudden, another car cuts you off while swerving across three lanes to make the exit. In the driver’s mind is “Oh no, that’s my exit! I have to make it across!” Not in the driver’s mind: “How does this decision affect others? Could it cause an accident? Could someone slam on the brakes and get rear-ended? Could I mis-time this and cause an accident myself?” If you drive, you see this happen constantly. Yet we just say the usual “There goes another crazy [your city] driver.” We’ve gotten so used to certain apathetic decisions people make that we don’t even register the wrongness of it all. In fact, we expect it to happen, just take it as a fact of life. This is why driver safety is so important; driving itself is easy, it’s the unpredictability of other drivers that’s the danger.
  • If you’ve worked in retail, customer service, or a similar “smile-through-gritted-teeth” industry, you’ve likely dealt with irate customers complaining about…something. I worked in a health insurance call center, and you would often get callers that were upset (an understatement) because their coverage closed and demanded an immediate resolution. When I explained that the coverage closed because they didn’t return a form they were sent 90 days ago, they didn’t care, didn’t accept responsibility, just kept yelling and demanding to have the insurance reactivated. To be fair, there’s a difference between being upset at a situation, and then taking that out on another person. The things that were said to us, the names we were called, the threats, all without ever hearing the caller take responsibility for his or her own mistakes that caused the situation…I never understood. Your solution to a self-created problem is to berate the grossly underpaid front-line employee (with no loyalty to the company; it’s not like we’re taking a side) that couldn’t resolve your situation even if they wanted to, and insist that “it doesn’t matter why it closed, I want it open now!”

You don’t usually think of these situations as opportunities for empathy, but that’s exactly what they are. And on a regular basis, most of us would fail these tests. If you start analyzing the encounters and experiences in your lives, studying the body language and behaviors of the people you meet in life, you’ll find even more examples.

All of this is to say that empathy is way more important and necessary than we think, and relevant in more situations than we’d previously thought. With everything happening in the world right now, the scarcity of empathy has become obvious. How can you empathize with the person losing health insurance if you don’t care about cutting in line? How can you empathize with refugees fleeing a war if you can’t give up your seat on the train to a person on crutches? How can you consider how climate change would impact future generations if you bump into people while walking and don’t bother acknowledging them or apologizing? How can you think of making the world better for your children or grandchildren if you’re actively destroying it right now for your own selfish reasons? How will we as humans ever deal with the tragedies of the world if we can’t stop thinking “wait, how does this benefit ME” first?

Think of any response to a police shooting (what did the victim do to deserve it?). Think of the words used to defend sexual assault (what was she wearing? was she drunk? did her body language say yes?). Think of the hypocrisy in following the statement “#AllLivesMatter” with justification for violence or hate or discrimination. Think about Philando Castile, a guy who did everything “right” and still received five bullets in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Think of the mental gymnastics it takes for the officer who shot him to justify like so:

There’s no remorse in there. There’s no acknowledgement of “I made a mistake and took a life.” There’s nothing but looking for any excuse to justify it, no matter how absurd. Death is tragic until they find a way to smear you. Apathy is okay if you can discredit the target first. And honestly, I’m not sure what’s the worse…the lack of empathy in such a statement/sentiment, or the lack of empathy in the people that will rise up to defend a killer over his victim.

Empathy is the key. Right now, we are collectively lacking the empathy we need to truly change the world for the better…not just for ourselves, but for those that are yet to come, for those that will be born years from now. So back to the first question I asked: Can you teach empathy? Can those without empathy learn it? If not, then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that as a society, we are completely and utterly doomed.

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