The Demise of Empathy

bpd empathy

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.

Ugh, yes!

Ugh, yes!

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,

I mean, how can you not like this guy?

I mean, how can you not like this guy?

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.

western_religious_symbolsIn 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.



5 thoughts on “The Demise of Empathy

  1. I have often equated religion to tribalism, you are one of us, or you are one of them. With them being ripe for victimization, just because of different beliefs, different skin color, or different locality. Indeed this mindset requires an expulsion of empathy. Empathy for others outside of your in group would lead to some degree of tolerance, we can’t be having that! Tolerance, understanding, fair shake, equality, are all words or terms to be applied to those within your own group. Everyone else is dirt beneath your shoes.

    This is one of the many reasons I argue against religion. In most of its forms/cults/sects/what have you, it requires this type of thought process. Which I see as a shameless excuse for destruction, mayhem, and murder. This is why I see religion as perhaps the greatest threat to society as we know it*, and not just a benign bunch of B.S. that has no evidence to support it.

    * Turn on the news and pay attention, if you can’t see what I am talking about, and it is a worldwide phenomenon, then you must be blind in one eye, and can’t see out the other…

  2. Very well-written and thought through piece. I don’t necessarily agree with some of the ideas of contrasting east and west. As I think capitalism and globalisation our responsible for an increasingly world-wide emphasis on individualism and being competitive and beating others. This globalisation destroys local communities due to the constant movement in and out of new people. And so a key source of creating values of empathy in people is lost. I think great changes in our world allow certain people to take advantage of this, but I believe in a future society things will settle down again and new values of empathy and senses of community will develop to support them. For now, I think the best thing we can do is try to be emphatic in our own life-decisions, and in our own understanding of ourselves, others and our place in the world. Religions definitely are guilty very often as you say, of instilling beliefs in people that work against empathy, and this just shows how out of touch these religions have come with their origins, another sign of how globalisation and capitalism have influenced all aspects of our society.

  3. If empathy is what I want, do I need to defend or attack or even point out anything about religions? That was for me… I don’t is what I decided. I can’t accurately point out differences or make condemning statements and call for reform … I don’t know how… nobody invited my criticism — so I choose to spend my time how?


    I like what you wrote — I clicked that yesterday — its just that — well, it isn’t giving me much in my area of personal control — except to agree that empathy is much necessary in greater presence in our world and in religion too.
    Thanks for posting.
    ~ Eric

  4. Rana,
    I was thinking about commenting when your post took a surprise turn to religion, which I originally decided to side-step, and then changed my mind, thinking that tying it in in a very general way would better address your difficulties. First to the job situation. It is incumbent upon the person who is being abused to establish respect. Empathy is always good (i.e., identifying with another’s situation, feelings, etc., as you said.) A response in empathy, however, is not always productive. If this is a real employment story, you (or this person – my sense of empathy doesn’t want to get you in trouble with your boss online) may have to teach this person to respect you, before he can empathize with you. In his self-centeredness, he may be completely unaware of your realities -either that, or uncaring, in that he perceives them as not affecting him. (Mr. “all about me” Me-Planet) Sounds like he’s caught up in his own little world, and making him aware of yours cannot always be done through a soft or pleasant means. What may be obvious to you, as a generally empathetic person, may require a sledge-hammer between the eyes to get across to him, and the sensitive person must be willing (and able) to engage on whatever strength is required to communicate their concerns to the other person. Showing empathy toward someone who is not respecting you only encourages further contempt from that person, and you may make matters worse. Ask yourself what is at the heart of the problem, so you can apply the right cure. The person in your story may want to pull their boss aside, explain the situation (say, with a 2×4! 🙂 ) and also explain that they require respect. This may make things worse before better, but there may be no other way. This takes a willingness to step out of the assumption that the other person can even see what they are doing to you, and do what it takes to communicate. When I was training in the field years ago as an electrician, I was doing work on a new water treatment facility two hours away, and had to drive there early in the morning with a hard-headed, but fundamentally decent boss. He was hammering on me all week. Finally, on the way home one day, I let him have it. “Bill, I get it on a 2-power! When you come on on a ten it only jambs me and ticks me off! He backed down right away. What’s interesting is that he wasn’t offended by this at all. I communicated at his hearing threshold and now he got it! Before that, all he heard was a faint and irritating buzzing noise – sensing my displeasure but not understanding why, working only to irritate him. I learned several valuable lessons that day. We must be willing to speak on whatever level it takes to be understood, the offended party must take responsibility for resolving the situation, and meekness and weakness are two different things. If I will not communicate on a strong enough level because I resent that the other doesn’t get it on a 2-power, then I am judging that person and insisting he be like me. If I CANNOT communicate on that level, it points as much to my weakness as to his insensitivity.

    In regard to truth and its relationship to empathy – empathy, love, and compassion require a foundation of truth, and without this foundation, our best efforts may do more harm than good. For instance, we need a firm grip on the realities of human nature, and there are times when an empathetic response may reinforce someone’s pride, carelessness, or self-contentedness. The doctor, not operating upon a foundation of truth, may make the patient worse, despite his good intentions. We cannot separate truth from love. Without it we get false love, false compassion, relational manipulation, indulgence masquerading as compassion, flattery as kindness, abdication of responsibility or cowardice as humility, or discipline as hatred. Standardless compassion is easy to maintain, as is compassionless truth. The cost and struggle is incurred when we hold to the one without letting go of the other. This, in essence, is Christianity in a nutshell, and this can be excruciating, which we derive from the word, “crucify. This is what the cross is all about. Hope you find this helpful. RT

  5. Rana

    I read through your article and agree with some of it, but I must diverge at the point where you compare “eastern” and “western” religions. yes, the Dalai Lama may appear to be a very jovial, soft-spoken fellow, but lies beneath those robes is no different that what lies beneath the robes of any imam, priest or rabbi. Sure, the details are different but the same sinister impulse is lurking. As with any religion, the claim to know things that simply cannot be known and the requirements of its followers to adhere to superstitious, supernatural nonsense. The doctrine of “the 4 truths” is just as ridiculous as any other supposedly god-made proclamation from any other religion. The Dalai Lama claims to be a re-incarnated god-king. This is not humility. This is the ultimate in both deceit and arrognace. Buddist institutions were sympathetic to and provided co-operation with the Japanese government during WW2. The holy institution of Budda is soaked in blood, just like Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Demands that you believe the impossible, the absolute and the supernatural, do not lead to peaceful outcomes.
    This religion, is just as lethal and dangerous as any other religion for this reason: It advocates, nay demands, the repudiation of the most precious and necessary human faculty – the mind. You must be contemptous of thought, contemptous of enquiry, contemptous of doubt and contemptous of skepticism.
    Religion is not required for empathy and as a matter of fact, I would argue that its a direct deterent.

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