Empathy: where has it gone?
By Dr. Ria Baker “What is it that is never changed even though everything is changed? It is love. And only that which never becomes something else is love, that which gives away everything and for that reason demands nothing, that which demands nothing and therefore has nothing to lose, that which blesses and blesses when it is cursed, that which loves its neighbor but whose enemy is also its neighbor, that which leaves revenge to the Lord because it takes comfort in the thought that he is even more merciful” (Kierkegaard, Three Upbuilding Discourses, III 275, 1843).
This quote came across on an email today, in a very timely fashion as I was pondering the topic of “empathy,” or rather, the lack thereof. I went to bed last night, after hearing of the latest report on hate crimes in our city and country, which have increased dramatically in recent months. As a person of color, I too have sensed a difference in reception in certain settings, a discomfort from “the other” in making eye contact or a cold stare in response to my greeting or smile. I wonder, “What causes persons to respond coldly or to incite hate crimes against “the other”? Does the person leave the act of indifference or hatred feeling a sense of relief or reward? What is gained from taking one’s anger out on someone who may have a different skin color or national origin? I went to bed, disheartened and prayerful, after hearing the report and I wondered where the love and empathy has gone, even among followers of Christ, who is the embodiment of empathy, love, and mercy. Is it their own personal pain that they are taking out on others? Is it not being able to stand the sight of a particular physiognomic feature in others? What is it?
I attended a support group in Houston this week for Iraqi and Syrians women displaced by war and who have been resettled in the area in recent weeks and months. I could sense the uncertainty and anxiety in their hearts and I was struck by scars of war, such as a missing limb but most of all wounded spirits. As one of the volunteers attempted to provide some words of comfort, hugs, and support to these women, by letting them know that we would be there for them in times of persecution and instruction on what to do when their children were bullied at school, I was saddened by the fact that these women and their children were now faced with an increased amount of micro-aggressions and at times blatant racism against them from the surrounding community. Many of the spouses of the Iraqi women had assisted the American soldiers during the war and now were granted asylum for the safety of their families. The Syrian women had fled Syria over two years ago and had been waiting for asylum for over two years in surrounding countries and now were here in a place they had anticipated being a place of acceptance and peace.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” Daniel H. Pink
Where has the empathy gone? Where has the ability to “feel with” the other gone? Hatred, fear, greed, selfishness? Have we not learned from our past mistakes? The answers escape me. I will need to be strong and not let my love and empathy slip away.
Ria E. Baker, Ph.D, LPC-S is an associate professor of counselor education at the Houston Graduate School of Theology