Empathy : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this Merriam –Webster.com
Where has empathy gone? Replaced by anger, jealousy, judgment, and apathy; it seems to have completely disappeared from the consciousness of the general population.
We sit in darkened theaters consuming popcorn and candy while watching a woman being brutally raped. We sit in our living rooms and watch an autopsy realistically portrayed while the kids are doing their homework at the dining room table. Mass murder is reported on by news agencies as if it is a sporting event-getting the gory details of the action that took place. Is there any wonder that empathy is disappearing?
In this day and age of instant coverage, we watch television reports of massive sink holes consuming houses and the people inside as if they were talking about an everyday meal. We watch the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, droughts, floods, snowstorms and tsunamis as if they were populated by actors and the results have no lasting consequences on the people that are involved.
Every day there are reports of animals that have been abused—beaten, used for target practice, left with no food or water for days at a time…and if we hesitate even a moment to ponder how horrible it is, how many of us take action of even the smallest kind?
Children are emotionally, physically, and sexually abused on a daily basis. Children are in hospitals fighting against cancer and other catastrophic diseases, and unless we know one personally, we never even think about them.
People everywhere have health issues, emotional issues. They are lonely, they are hurting in one way or another and what do we do? For the most part…nothing. We sit back and wonder what time the next game starts or whether there is any ice cream in the freezer. Very few of us actually take any action because we have lost the basic ability to empathize with others.
No doubt the scientific data is out there to conclude that to a large extent our lack of the ability to empathize is a result of our constant inundation with images of violence—be it on television, movies, video games or computer. People have begun to blur the lines between what is real and what is fiction. We have lost the ability to imagine ourselves in situations. Imagination is the beginning of empathy—being able to “walk in another person’s shoes”.
People who read have a much better ability to empathize, because the process of reading encourages them to put themselves into the situation. A reader imagines that the story is happening around and to them rather than being a casual observer, and as a result they empathize with the characters in the story. That is why so often you will hear people say that the book was much better than the movie. It is because as they read the book, they were actually there experiencing the emotions of the characters rather than just watching someone else portray those feelings.
Reader or not, everyone has the ability to empathize with others. Whether they do or do not is a conscious decision. As a society, we seem to be losing our humanity and our willingness to look for the good in people. It is much more profitable to print the scandalous. Apparently, when a scandal doesn’t exist, it seems that we have started to accept innuendo and fabrications as truths. In an attempt to get a picture of a celebrity, paparazzi take more and more risks—putting themselves in danger and endangering those around them. They target children of celebrities in addition to stalking their parents. These children are being traumatized as much as any child at the hands of an abuser. Emotional abuse is still abuse. Members of the press and the paparazzi would serve themselves well by employing a bit of empathy. Rather than being so driven to take a photograph of a child that might make them a few dollars, perhaps they should take a moment to empathize with the parents of the child screaming to be left alone and with the child whose world is being invaded by “scary people with cameras”. The consumer, too, would do well to apply a bit of empathy. The people who purchase the magazines and visit the sites that promote pictures of this kind may not be aware of the chaos involved in the process of shooting said photographs. If they were aware, perhaps they would choose not to purchase or visit the sites in question. If they utilize their ability to empathize with the objects of these photographs and realize that they are not objects, but indeed they are real people with feelings and rights just as normal human beings, then perhaps these photographs would have less appeal.
Empathy isn’t dead and gone, but it certainly is on the endangered species list. Civility, humanity and kindness seem to be there, too. Hopefully, it isn’t too late to save them. Our society is suffering in their absence.