Empathy as a way to resolve our problems.

There is a contentious atmosphere that pervades our societies with all the prevalent anger, frustration and fear, and should be of concern for everyone.   Older members of our society grew up with much change with social upheavals, environmental calamities, ecological safety thresholds being crossed, and the threat of nuclear war, but to all intents and purposes the social future was somewhat predictable.  Those now in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s are now living in a world where the future in all areas is entirely uncertain and even potentially dire outcomes are being predicted.  The world we are bequeathing to our children, let alone our grandchildren, is one apparently devoid of empathy.    

To think about what it might be like to live in a war-zone with the threat of bombings, gun-fire, air-raids, and the intrusion of foreign troops in one’s home and businesses would rattle many people’s perceptions concerning the benign nature of military intervention.  Massive numbers of war refugees are becoming normal.  Add to that melee the problem of even larger numbers of ecological refugees and it is not surprising that thoughts of impending Armageddon are prevalent.  One of the symptoms of more developed nations has been one of developing isolationism as a strategy to isolate themselves from the ecological problems, which do not stop at national boundaries.  And if people of all nations began to empathize on a global level with the ecological system that is the planet-at-large, they might begin to wonder whether the caustic conditions of modern consumer-based society have in some way been caused by humans disconnected and displaced from the natural world.

A sad symptom of modern consumerism is that it prevents people who benefit from global capitalism empathizing with those who are the burden bearers of global Environmental and Social Problems. They never think what it might be like to live in abject poverty while local resources are shipped elsewhere to propagate another nation’s monetary wealth.  If More Developed Countries were genuine in their attempts to be empathic, the need for global scale social change would be self-evident.  Currently, it takes doomsday-like catastrophes, such as hurricanes, Tsunamis, major droughts and flooding’s, famines, and nuclear power station problems (e.g. Chernobyl and Fukushima) to highlight the plight of the most disadvantaged people.  Yet, the speed at which these disasters are forgotten is an unfortunate indication of how little empathy actually exists. 

Relearning the gift of empathy is an important first step in comprehending and resolving the tremendous problems that we as humans must come to grips with if we are to successfully adapt to the global chaos now manifesting. It is a step that means leaving the shelter of one’s own experiences so as to enter the minds of others and to entertain different points of view.  Empathy is the pathway towards compassion and provides a compass towards deeper truths of human experience. Through empathy, every person can come to see the false allure of consumerism and the myth that we can be happy by ourselves, alone and separate from the minds and hearts of other people.  The human disconnect from, and treatment, of the natural world is a mirror of how we treat each other.  

First, some definitions to get us all on the same page.

  • Apathy is a state of indifference —an absence of interest or concern to certain aspects of emotional, social, or physical life. It is a common reaction to stress where it manifests as learned helplessness – I don’t care.
  • Antipathy is dislike for something or somebody, the opposite of sympathy. While often induced by previous experience, can exist without rational cause-and-effect explanation.
  • Sympathy is a social affinity in which one person stands with another person, closely understanding his or her feelings – more than simply the recognition of another’s suffering, sympathy is actually sharing another’s suffering, if only briefly.
  • Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion – the ability to ‘put oneself into another’s shoes’ – a skill greatly diminished in modern society.
  • Compassion is a profound human emotion that gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.

The emphasis on the constant acquisition of material goods in today’s consumer lifestyle cheapens human relationships – it trains people to see others as mere stepping stones to some selfish sense of satisfaction.  Everyday interactions with other people – everyone from close friends to strangers on the street – are seen only as valuable to the extent that they can produce some benefit.  This has led to a condition I call ‘hyper-individualism.’ Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve others’ suffering. It has been found that most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way; they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to successfully manage ourselves and our relationships, and encompasses five basic skills:

  1. Self-awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.
  2. Self-regulation: the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods.
  3. Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status.
  4. Social skill: means proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, an ability to find common ground and build rapport.
  5. Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people, skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.

It’s important to emphasize that building one’s emotional intelligence cannot – will not – happen without sincere desire and concerted effort and one’s own enthusiasm to create change and successfully communicate and understand the feelings of all people involved – this is about true empathy and not about trying to manipulate emotions for some political goal. 

Nothing great can be achieved without enthusiasm, so if one wants to become really empathic, then high emotional intelligence must be developed, which means developing ‘Trust’ and understanding the other person’s perspectives and worldview. Part of the ’empathy process’ is establishing trust and rapport, which helps us to have sensible ‘adult’ discussions. Establishing trust is about listening and understanding without judging – not necessarily agreeing (which is different). A useful focus to aim for when listening to another person is to try to understand how the other person feels, and to discover what they want to achieve.  It seems obvious, but ‘Listening,’ of all the communications skills, is arguably the one which makes the biggest difference in finding common ground for relationship solutions, whether it is personal, civic, or political. 

Listening does not come naturally to most people, so we need to work hard at it; to stop ourselves ‘jumping in’ and giving our opinions.  Mostly, people don’t listen – they just take turns to speak – more interested in announcing our own views and experiences than really listening and understanding others.  We all like to be listened to and understood – when we are understood we feel affirmed and validated.  Yet, as I just said, we do not readily make others feel validated as we often become fixated in pushing our own perspectives without considering that others also have their perspectives.  This is where empathy becomes a most valuable trait and tool in understanding and resolving differences equitably.   

Active listeningis responding or doing something that demonstrates that you are listening and have understood what others are saying. Giving non-verbal cues to demonstrate you are paying attention (nodding, making eye contact, or making facial expressions appropriate to what is being said) shows that you care about what is being said.  Also, reflecting back the main points and summarizing what has been said helps build rapport and ensure that what is being shared is clearly understood.

Problems arise because we close out connections.  These are really a form of ‘anti-community,’ because we focus on material values, which are against personal connections and community.  Our sense of community has been severely eroded to the point that we are many people feel like they live in ‘bubble cultures.’ This is further worsened by the way society pigeonholes people and separates us all thereby forcing people to make false assumptions about others and heightens antipathy.   

To the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Conquest, War, Famine and Plague) roaming loose in our modern world, I would add apathy and antipathy.  And all this adds up to a huge cloud of fear that further reduces our willingness to connect. We are hard-wired to care and connect with people, which when we do this creates a reason for caring, cooperation, and desire to be of service to others.  This creates inclusionary cooperation with EMPATHY and COMPASSION.  And why is this so critical now?  Because unless we start practicing empathy, we will fail.  It’s easy to think you can be a survivalist and ignore people, but in the end we all sink or swim together.  And for me I’d rather swim to new shores of hope and the promise of a better world. 

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