I’ve been hinting at this post for a quite a few days now, and finally I think I’m ready to start typing. I’ve been running into a serious problem in my daily life lately, and for a while I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Now I know. Empathy is dying. The actual concept of empathy seems to be seeping out of people day by day, and every time I talk to someone about something, anything, the proof of its slow and subtle demise is even more prominent to me.
I’ll present a basic example.
On Tuesday, you are told you have a report for the CEO and company board to write at work. Your boss demands that the entire report is developed, written, edited, and ready to go by 7:00 am Friday. You have five other assignments for other people due earlier than that, but every time your boss comes to your desk, he yells at you for not working on his project. You wish that he would take a moment to realize that the assignment he has given you is not your only job.
Before you can finalize the report, you must have someone from an adjoining office proofread it and approve its use with the higher brass in the company. On Wednesday afternoon, you send the report to the other office, emphasizing a need for it by Friday morning, and you you head home. You get to work Thursday morning and you wait. And you wait. Your boss comes to you every half hour ranting about needing that report ASAP. And by noon you are fuming, calling the office and screaming out the first person that picks up the line, demanding the report be approved and sent back immediately.
Sound familiar? You end up releasing the same inconsiderate onslaught on the other office as your boss had been releasing on you. This is a typical situation now, and it’s not getting any better.
People don’t know how to consider the other side, how to understand where other people are coming from. They don’t want to understand anymore. It’s my way or the highway. I’m more important because I know what’s going on in my life and you don’t. I’m right and you’re wrong, and nothing you can say can change that. Also sound familiar?
I know I return and dwell on this topic quite a bit, but I can think of no better example of the destruction of empathy than Western culture and, in particular, Western religious influence. Why do I once again focus on religious affiliations? Simply put, Western religions are not only the most influential religions of our time, they are also the most prominent religions in our time which specify an entitlement to their followers and a claim to ‘truth’ versus ‘belief.’ These religions justify the denial of other beliefs simply on the grounds that their beliefs are ‘right’ because they say so.
Now some would argue that Eastern religions have the same issues, citing the many Hindu sects which fight and feud among themselves constantly. Typically, however, this is not an example of whose belief is ‘right,’ but whose god is the ruling god of that area, town, city, or province. These sects do not deny the existence of the others’ god, they simply believe their god is stronger in the greater scheme of things, and this power struggle amongst the gods is constant. There is no claim to knowing more than another sect, as Western religions so constantly claim over other religions. There is only an argument of logistics.
Some would also cite the very recent (and possibly ongoing) attacks on Muslims by Buddhists, led by a Buddhist monk now considered a ‘radical Buddhist,’ in Myanmar, Burma. Certainly yes, I would agree that this is an issue of severe violence against another religion by these Buddhist radicals. To this issue, I cannot say much. It is a very odd,
specific phenomenon for a group of Buddhists to commit such violent atrocities. It is not part of their culture to put their beliefs over others, and is most certainly not supported by current figurehead of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. The issue here is that this is not a situation which is justified through the Buddhist religion itself. The religion forbids the killing of any living creature (at least the intentional killing of another creature). The Buddhist practice also teaches that very different, unexpected paths, can lead to the same goal of enlightenment as the EightFold Path. The EightFold Path is merely the easiest way to get there. Basically, these extremist Buddhists can hardly be considered Buddhist at all at this point, as their actions go completely against the doctrine of their religion. For this reason, I do not consider this extreme action as comparative to Western religions and how they treat other beliefs.
All the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, claim they believe in, ‘The One, True God.’ Due to this claim of a single deity, which can only be called the origin, the only deity, these religions must also denounce all other deities in their lives. These religions, especially Christianity, also call for conversion to the religion. These religions hold to an afterlife of black and white, punishment and reward. Those who believe will be rewarded, and those who don’t will be damned. Because of this, the religion itself is offered as a salvation ticket; believe properly and you will be saved.
Now I have no problem with people believing these things. The issue that arises is that those who follow these religions and take these particular aspects of their religion very seriously end up justifying their lack of empathy toward other religions through this set of beliefs. They focus so much on convincing other people that their belief is truth, and that without the ‘saving grace’ of their particular denomination of that religion these other people will be eternally punished in hell, that they forget their belief is just that, belief. They forget that these people they are trying to convert already have a belief, which they personally believe to be truth and take very seriously.
In basic terms, these religions instill a sense of ‘holier than thou.’ Mind you, there are many who ignore this urge to outwardly enforce these beliefs. Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live their lives accepting of all others’ personal beliefs, and do not make it a point to impose their views on others. But too many use these beliefs as self-gratification, as a way to feel like they are better than others, that they know something more, that they are right and others are wrong. The ‘holier than thou’ complex becomes an excuse to dismiss empathy toward other beliefs.
This can easily be seen reflected in Western cultures as well. A combination of Western religious domination and financial and economic privilege which has followed the Western powers through the past hundred years has established a ‘greater than thou’ mentality in Western peoples, specifically in Americans. Many individuals take this mentality to heart on a personal level, demanding entitlement and special privilege for little to no reason. The concept of equality is skewed to emphasize the entitlement of the individual.
Please understand that this is not a generalized idea. I’m not calling out all Americans, I’m not claiming all Westerners cannot experience empathy. However, the mentality of entitlement, of ‘higher,’ ‘holier,’ and ‘greater than thou’ mindset which so many people no have for themselves is driving out the ability for people to comprehend empathy. We have become so self-obsessed, so determined to be right while others are wrong, so determined to be better, so determined to feel special over other people, that we are beginning to truly forget what it is like to empathize with others.
Empathy is now becoming the image of the undecided, the wishy washy, and the weak. If you dare to put yourself in another person’s shoes, understand where they are coming from, and dare to accept their differences, you must not be confident in your own stance.
The ability for one creature to put itself in the place of another creature, understand the position in life of that other creature, and accept that other creature’s position is an ability only held by human beings. No other animal in the world can claim to empathize with another creature. That we could forsake such a unique ability, labeling that ability as weakness.
I implore my readers, as I do every day, to consciously think about your unique abilities as humans to empathize with your fellow man. Put yourself in others’ shoes, avoid defaulting to the typical, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” response. Stop yourself before you retaliate against someone, and take a moment to consider their reasoning, what they might be going through to make them react or do what they are doing. Please. Don’t let empathy become a dead aspect of human nature. Please.