Empathy’s Endgame

In today’s world, we have more tools to communicate with one another than ever before in the history of mankind. We can connect to the farthest reaches of the planet in a click. With all this technology, you would think it would bring us closer together. And in many ways it has made maintaining long-distance relationships much more possible.

At the same time, the plethora of possibility has also diluted our attention spans and with it, our ability to relate to one another. Terabytes of garbage fill the Internet, the place where flame wars have been replaced with shame wars. It’s no holds barred and the din of defeatism is deafening.

Nothing replaces personal contact. No email, no audio note, not text message, no like,love,laugh icon. Time spent together is the glue that binds.

But we are busy. We are distracted. We are preoccupied with defending our position and arguing about who is right, wrong or to blame.

What we lack is empathy.

I am not certain if my perspective has shifted as I have grown older or if it is an empirical finding, but my sense is there is a strong wave of egocentrism flowing through society today. Decency and decorum have left the building — an “anything goes” attitude has taken their place.

An example: I went to the sauna with my friend this past weekend. While waiting for the attendant to arrive, we sat in the steam room with two dozen other people, many of whom believed it a good idea to start humming. Which they did. Loudly. The circular room had great acoustics for an a cappella group. Except we weren’t in a concert hall. We were sitting naked in a hot room full of steam. I thought it would pass. It didn’t. The group kept going. So I commented: “So much for the silent majority.” My passive aggressiveness got me nowhere so I decided to shift tactics. After a good five minutes of their droning, I said: “That’s enough. Please.” Someone behind me snarled. “Yes, teacher.”

The attendant came in and meekly said it might be best not to disturb the other guests outside the room. When I pointed out that there were guests inside the room equally piqued, she just shrugged.

And no one apologized afterward. In their eyes, it was perfectly alright to behave that way in public. In a place one retreats to for calm and serenity. They didn’t care if they disturbed other people. Empathy too had left the building.

In a world that celebrates selfies more than the collective, it is hard to find empathy. And yet the ability to understand and share the feelings of another is the key to our current mess. We need to return to decency and decorum. To kindness and considerateness. To consciousness and caring. It begins in small ways. In listening when someone asks you something. In considering another perspective. In expressing your views in non-combative ways. In forgiving when someone is less than perfect in your view. In moving forward together. In understanding everyone of us feels some level of pain. And joy. And worry. And hope.

Above else, let there be love.


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