Episode 31 – Will Empathy Unite a Divided Country?

In this episode, I will discuss why I believe that empathy is the one quality that can repair a divided nation. Some people are unaware of the differences between empathy, sympathy and compassion. Yet, they are also interrelated.

Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in the position of another person, often, but always, a victim. People who are empathic can vicariously experience the emotions or opinions of someone else.

Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone experiencing misfortune. The sympathetic person wishes to see the victim better off. It does not involve sharing the perspective or emotion of the victim. There is no shared distress.

Compassion is the feeling arising when confronted by another’s suffering, which motivates you to relieve that suffering.

What distinguishes all three emotional states is that it is possible to have one without the other. You can empathize with someone who is experiencing either pain or pleasure. You feel that person’s emotional state without necessarily being motivated to help that person. You can sympathize without putting yourself in that person’s position.

It does seem that empathy is often a necessary precondition to compassion. When you place yourself in another man’s shoes and see things from their perspective, it often motivates you to do something to change that position. This allows people to show compassion by taking action. Empathy allows people to demonstrate altruism towards others, including self-sacrifice and charity.

Our nation, the United States, has developed a distinct lack of empathy from some sectors. When Republicans propose repealing Obamacare, they have no plans to support any form of healthcare. In the absence of healthcare subsidies of some sort, tens of millions of people will effectively be without any protection whatsoever. This clearly demonstrates a complete lack of empathy for the very real obstacles people will face.

The GOP does not seem to be capable of putting themselves in the position of people with real problems. People generally don’t choose to become ill. A great number of people are born with, or contract serious ailments throughout their lives. In the absence of support, many of those ailments can become debilitating or life threatening. Conservatives push for the end of health coverage, even for senior citizens. The resulting suffering or loss of life does not seem to enter their minds. They often push for market-based solutions, which translates into people paying for coverage. For many people, purchasing insurance is just not feasible. They do not have the financial means.

This same lack of empathy is present in other parts of the economy. Recently I encountered a woman with a five-year-old child. She must work to support the child and her three other children. She has no way to provide day care while she works. She is in a low wage job that just does not provide sufficient income for day care. Vouchers are available that will make it a little more affordable, but the GOP tax bill will end that support. The GOP is not saying how they propose to make it possible for this woman to care for her child. It will not happen by magic; there are no miracles.

Yet another example is that of gun violence. When gun massacres happen, people offer sympathy in the form of thoughts and prayers. This is a natural human reaction to tragedy. However, this shows neither empathy, nor compassion. After every massacre the same thoughts and prayers are offered, but nothing concrete is done to prevent future massacres. No attempt is made to try to understand the pain and suffering of the victims, or their families. No transparent attempt to put themselves in the position of the victims.

A common reaction is that we cannot do anything about gun massacres because people have the right to firearms. This sympathy translates neither into empathy, nor compassion. To that end, it is not effective. Providing sympathy without empathy or compassion when it is within your power to effect change is counter-productive. It is no better than apathy, the complete absence of emotion connection or feeling of responsibility to the victims of violence.

It is possible to reduce gun deaths. That is amply demonstrated by nations that have actually taken action. The gun death rates in those nations is far lower than our own. The GOP actively refuse to take any action likely to reduce this unnecessary violence. That shows a dramatic lack of empathy and compassion.

It is possible to provide universal health coverage to everyone in the nation. That is amply demonstrated in most European nations and countries like Canada, Japan, and Australia. They all have health care systems that provide coverage. Here again is where we show a complete lack of empathy or compassion. There is no real reason or excuse for this kind of inaction.

We know that a lack of empathy makes crimes and warfare possible. Most violent or destructive behaviors are made possible because of this lack.

There are certainly negative aspects to empathy. Too much empathy can induce depression, leaving people without the cognitive and emotional resources to deal with the situation. It can drain emotion and produce feelings of resentment. Those feelings are uncomfortable and painful. Science shows that empathy activates the insula, a part of the brain linked to emotion and self-awareness. It also activates the anterior cingulated cortex, which is linked to emotion, consciousness and pain.

Too much empathy can actually lead to antisocial behavior, which means it is not intrinsically good and pro social. People in the health care field faced wih trauma can become emotionally burned out and overwhelmed, which has profoundly negative effects on the psyche and on the body.

The election of the current president led directly to an overwhelming sense of distress in many empathetic people. The potential removal of social programs that assist millions of people, environmental destruction and economic damage profoundly affected many people. Republicans have an overwhelming majority in all three arms of government. The result is that empathy cannot follow its natural course to compassion. There is no way for ordinary people to take action to improve the situations in which people find themselves. This leaves people feeling helpless and can result in destructive behavior because there is no outlet for all that empathy.

The kind of negativity produced in the current political climate allows people to act in ways closer to psychopathy than to empathy and compassion. When populists target certain groups of people, it reduces the humanity of the targets. This empowers people to act in physically or emotionally violent ways towards them. We see this with the rise of the white supremacist movement. The president has in effect given permission to suspend empathy. If this continues, fatalities are almost inevitable. We must find ways to reduce that possibility.

There are ways to induce empathy in people. Empathy is both a natural skill and can be learned. When people from different backgrounds get together, they can start to understand one another. This produces solutions to many of the problems that plague society. Reducing large wealth disparities is one way to accomplish this. Mixed education is another. Children who associate with others from a variety of backgrounds naturally become more empathetic towards one another. This also allows them to become more compassionate. People who have something in common with others are more likely to help them in stressful times.

People who socialize with other races become less racist and more empathetic towards others. This is because it is easier to see the world through someone else’s eyes. This is one reason that volunteering is so important, especially in the young. When society helps those in need, it becomes a safer place, with less distress, and less depression. Societies with strong social policies like many European countries, countries like Norway, Denmark and Sweden are happier. People live longer, with greater security. Living in a country with few useful social programs makes life more difficult, and more stressful. People become more cynical towards society, especially towards democratic ideals. Autocrats or populists who seem to offer more security attract people. This ultimately undermines society.

Americans need to gravitate towards one another. We need to mix with people who are not like us, not towards those who are most like us. It is only when we fully understand what others go through that we can live more fulfilling, empathetic lives.

People who feel that their empathy translates into acts of compassion are healthier and happier. It is unreasonable to expect charities to provide support for the millions of people who live without hope. That is what governments, the representatives of the people, are supposed to do. That is what our government is not doing. This creates divisions in society, creating resentments and ultimately civil war.

We need to unite our country again. We can do this by feeling empathy for people in tough situations. It should not matter whether they created those situations, or whether they are victims. People do not follow computer algorithms in their daily lives. They make poor decisions. We need the wealthy, and those in power to understand that, instead of blaming people. We need everyone to put themselves in other’s shoes. We need people to train themselves to have empathy, but not just empathy. We need people to take action when they can, to take action to help people change for the better. We need to create situations in which people have the opportunities to take their lives in a different direction.

Empathy is necessary for compassion. We need to transform empathy into compassion for others, a warm, loving, caring emotion that does not involve feeling what victims feel. Compassion activates the brain centers linked to learning and reward. It creates positive feelings; people feel kinder towards one another, more willing to help. This creates altruism, which allows people to be kinder towards people who do not appear to be victims today. We need to feel empathy towards people with whom we have nothing in common. Refugees across the world are not terrorists they are victims. Drug addicts are not criminals; they are victims of physical condition. We should learn to reach out to people and assist them. This is the promise of Western Civilization and one that we are not living up to.

We need our leaders to create an active desire to alleviate suffering within the country, building on empathy and motivating altruism. They need to show that we can transform frustrated feelings of empathy into compassion by showing that governments can help people. We need to build compassion from empathy, a self-awareness that allows space between people instead of living their lives.

On Friday, my next episode will deal with how using empathy can improve our public speaking.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for the best possible life to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.

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