American Empathy

empathy (n):

the vicarious power of understanding and imaginatively entering another person’s feelings.

Empathy’s otherwise known as the ability to “step into someone else’s shoes,” not only effectively seeing a situation from someone else’s point-of-view but literally “feeling” the emotions they feel as you imagine that point-of-view.

A recent study conducted by researchers at The University of Michigan attempted to prove that overall empathy has been steadily declining since 1980.  The article, in Scientific American can be found here…

Now, while their data might be vague and “shaky” at best — this article did resonate with me.  There are many psychologists out there that are witnessing some disturbing trends and patterns in American behavior — some suggesting a rapid drop in American Empathy, down an alarming 40% according to some.  How true is this statistic?  That’s to be debated, and I’m not the expert to do it.  As a storyteller it’s my role and greater responsibility to raise a challenging question, one that may force others to see themselves in that story, and to ask those deeper questions of themselves.  Hopefully in that process, they find their own answers.

I know that this storytelling process during “Sticks & Stones,” forever enhanced my sensitivity to this topic — the concept of the “destruction of empathy.”  It was the whole reason I selected the opening image for what it was — a child’s sketch of a heart — Brandon’s heart.  At the end it’s not that it’s been broken — it’s not there at all, completely destroyed.    What I have learned and now believe is that as humans we are constantly yearning for greater and deeper connections with others.   It’s a well-known fact that neglected newborns develop slower and have a much greater likelihood for social and emotional problems later in life.  Developing into a caring and empathetic adult means knowing one is loved, supported, and cared about from the very first days of life and throughout childhood.  What is alarming to me is an increasing trend in ultimate “survival of the fittest” thinking where we are putting individual, academic, and pre-professional goals well ahead of emotional and social development.

Currently, a film called “Race To Nowhere,” is sweeping the country — a documentary that uncovers the American obsession with “success” and the overwhelming pressures parents, our educational system, and society as a whole are putting on each and every child to “be the best.”  And in this struggle to survive, the issue of how children treat each other is losing in my opinion — the very decay of empathy.

What also alarms me is the paradox of modern communications.  At the same time that all of our  texting, emailing, video sharing, posting to our Facebook profiles and tweeting is so instantaneously interconnected it’s also isolating us socially and emotionally.  I recently read an article on “Facebook Depression,” which shows a trend in American teens that links their emotional doldrums to the time they spend on Facebook comparing and in their own estimation, NOT measuring up to their peers.   Facebook, it can be argued, is creating a skewed version of reality.  The most popular people don’t really have 1,340 friends and aren’t always unbelievably happy and surrounded by other unbelievably happy people at crazy parties.  But thanks to social networking the lines between perception and reality are blurring more and more every single day.  This is a trend for teens, but as more of these teens become young adults, and as more of these young adults become adults — the way we compare ourselves to others and what “they have” and what we “don’t have,” is becoming more and more prevalent.  The more then we strive for what we perceive as success to get the stuff we don’t have — and the less we consider the other people we’re hurting along the way to get there.

Even though we are more “connected” than ever before we are also paradoxically more ALONE.  This lacking in human interaction makes it more and more difficult for us to understand, appreciate, and empathize with others.  And I would argue that the understanding of others and seeing things from their perspective gives us greater sense of ourselves and our own unique journey.  On that thought,  if we can’t see others wholly — how do we have any chance of seeing and realizing ourselves truthfully?  Upon discussion, I learned how natural it is for teenagers to try on different personas through their adolescence — playing different roles to please the present crowd.  As adults, time teaches us to grow out of this role playing and into a truer self-definition.   But with technology we can hide more and more behind our laptops and iPhones — we don’t have to be as truthful to others and thus we are less honest with ourselves. This is why communication technology makes it easier for us to “bully” or “mistreat” each others.  We don’t have to see the tears on their face nor hear the cracks in their voice after we send them a “text,” or “email.”  We don’t have to think about how we may have hurt them, we can type, click ‘send’ and go on with our day.  It’s easier to hurt than it is to love — especially nowadays.

It’s said that couples that have been together a long time start to look alike, mirror each others actions and even deeper — their emotions.  Wordlessly they can understand what their loved one is feeling and sometimes even thinking.  But the modern world aids us in putting up more and more barriers between each other — more difficulties to truly connect with the others that matter the most.

So how do we revive Empathy in America?   It shouldn’t be difficult.  Almost each and every one of us enter this world full of it, ready to give and accept love and not to “think” about what’s best for us as individuals.   Seeing ourselves in others and vice versa isn’t a burden or a version of community service — it’s a gift we give others and a reward we receive.  Fixing this problem starts with a reminder — when you hurt another you are actually hurting yourself.  If we could all see the greater whole and not just the individual goal — then empathy won’t only survive but it will flourish…

…and this is a future that is still very possible.

~ by Dan Fabrizio on April 13, 2011.

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