Whither Empathy?

September 27, 2015

Whither empathy? Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.” I think about empathy often, in part because a friend offered up a lack of empathy as an explanation for all of our many ills.  I’m not sure he’s right, but I don’t want to say he’s wrong, either.

The immediate trigger for this piece—as in, what did I read today?—comes from a Facebook comment to Walmart could pay workers $14.89 an hour without raising prices at Daily Kos. I can’t find the comment but a pretty close approximation is

I could support a wage increase for Walmart workers, but not until the shelves are stocked better. Every time I go to buy something they’re out of it.

Most immediately, I felt the like the Aflac duck, after receiving the full Yogi! (“And they give you cash, which is just as good as money.”) What does a lack of inventory have to do with wages? Does the commenter think low-paid Walmart workers are responsible for a lack of inventory? Or that, somehow, the under $10 per hour set is slow walking on the job, just to hurt him?

With the briefest bit of reflection, I saw “no effing empathy.” Here’s a man with a beef about Walmart—they don’t stock all of their items in every store—and an opportunity to spout off. No more; no less!

Empathy has also been on my mind when it comes to Rowan County (Ky.) Clerk Kim Davis. That this woman and her attorneys are nincompoops is a given, and not my point today.* Weddings are joyful events. Couples are full or promise about their futures together. That someone who claims she acts under “G-d’s authority” takes away from people that joy and promise tells me she lacks any ability to empathize. Does Ms. Davis really believe in a G-d so full of scorn that s/he wants her to wring from the event any possible pleasure? Don’t answer, please; it’s a rhetorical question.

Finally, and because we like to accentuate the positive here at MRW, there’s Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio). Maybe as much as a Petabyte’s worth of data—1024 Terabytes aka lots of words and images—exists regarding six days in the USA. In all of that matter what stands out for me is the fact that while Pope Francis never renounced Church teachings on same sex marriage, abortion, and birth control, he did not make them the centerpiece of his comments. Why? I don’t know for sure, for the Pope and I are not in touch with one another. My theory, though, is that Pope Francis appreciates how complicated life can be for many people. He does not need to approve of a person’s decision to understand just how difficult the choices are. That’s empathy, writ grandly, and it’s why so many people admire Pope Francis … and, perhaps, why his example may cause some people to better appreciate other people’s journeys.

I see empathy around me all the time. Often, its focus involves someone’s friend, relative, co-worker, etc. For many, though, appreciating a stranger’s path presents more challenges. As it happens, scientists think stress limits our ability to empathize with those people we don’t know. (For details read Stress Makes It Difficult to Empathize with Strangers: Study by Jim Algar for Tech Times back in January. Look, also, at Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Dr. Sherry Turkle of MIT for some thoughts about how technology gets in the way.)

I’ve managed to write more than 600 words with mentioning the Donald, and too many others in public life whose raison d’être seems to be anti-empathy. I can’t ignore this shameful exercise in division but, for now ’nuff said. I know my audience pretty well, and I think we all understand the need to focus on others. I hope I’m simply providing a little reminder.

*I suppose my comments beg the question: empathy for Ms. Davis. Well, maybe, but there’s none for her attorneys. Their approach is shameful and unethical, and I do hope the Kentucky attorney discipline process and one or more of the judges in the case will make hold them accountable.

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