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Where is our empathy?

  • Published at 06:03 pm November 14th, 2019

Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

“You OK? You sound like you’ve been crying,” asks Shayla’s colleague over the phone.

“Yes, I’m OK,” Shayla responds. “It’s just that something unexpected happened and I’m not sure if my husband and I will be together anymore.” 

Shayla’s voice cracks as she reaches for a tissue. When she looks up, she is surprised to find the person has hung up. She calls him back but, but it is unanswered.

To make matters worse, she notices over the next few days that the colleague circumvents her. 

Later one evening, he sends her an email that simply says, “Sorry. Couldn’t take it. It’s your personal issue.”

Most of us have had interactions like this that leave us scratching our heads. We can reverse the sexes in the above scenario or have both parties be the same sex. It doesn’t matter. It still surprises and shocks us when people we consider friends -- decent, kind people -- seem to be avoiding us when we most need their support. They are clearly not sadists or psychopaths who delight in the suffering of others. 

They simply appear apathetic to our plight. This behaviour pattern is perplexing. Their indifference can lead to anger, judgment, and recriminations, but here is the problem: Both parties feel that their feelings have been trampled on.

Consider what happens inside us when we view the suffering of others. As seeing the suffering of others causes us to suffer too, people develop strategies for protecting themselves. Some do what Shayla’s workmate did -- put physical and emotional distance between themselves and the person suffering. 

Some stay present but emotionally detached, which the sufferer usually experiences as emotional abandonment.

Look at the real-life cases of the actress who was caught unaware juicily entangled with her boyfriend in a recent video that went viral; the cricketer, who showed less keenness to comply with the stringent requirements of ICC’s anti-match fixing rules; or the BCB president who was blamed by the public for the particular player’s ban. Do you see things from their perspective? Can you really put yourself in their shoes and feel their anguish? 

Looking at social media, it seems that either the majority of us do not sympathize, or do not know how to empathize.

When someone is thoughtful of another person’s hardships and anguish, it is simply an acknowledgment that we understand what that person is going through, and we genuinely wish it is over for them. In traditional society, a common way to demonstrate that sympathy is to send prayers to those who are suffering. 

Sharing sympathetic thoughts is one way in which we experience a sense of oneness with others, and allows for a more profound personal engagement than one would generally have had under normal situations.

Empathy allows us to come to terms with how others came to make the decision they chose to make, without allowing our own biases to cloud that judgment. Unlike sympathy, it allows for people to join together and at least attempt to have a shared experience. 

It involves seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and secondly, sharing their emotions, including their distress.

Suppose I come to you and I’m anxious and upset. You, being highly empathetic, you too are now anxious and upset. You share my feelings -- but that’s not what I want. I want sympathy (and perhaps some tea). 

I want calmness on your part, reassurance, compassion, and caring. I don’t want you to freak out because I’m freaking out. 

However, empathy is something which is very much in short supply in our society. We are in need of people who are able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. 

Being empathetic does not require that a society sacrifice its well-being for the betterment of whoever is in distress, but requires an intelligent assessment of what happened behind the scenes.

Empathy is an innate as well as a learned skill. To experience empathy means that we are in touch with our emotions.

People who lack empathy are probably raised in families where getting in touch with feelings are not encouraged, or they have learned to shut down their feelings early in their lives to such a degree that they have closed off their hearts and are not even aware of their own feelings.

As a result, these people end up lacking self-compassion and self-love. They are probably not even aware that such a disconnection is like a defense mechanism from their ego because, if they empathize, they need to relate, get in touch with their feelings, and feel the pain. 

Nasrin Pervin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She is a Senior Lecturer at the department of English and Modern Languages, North South University.

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