In the absence of empathy

Editorial By Matthew Scott

In the absence of empathy, sorrow clouds the world. In a world dominated by the apathetic, what hope would there be to live an engaging and fulfilling life? If given the choice, who among us would honestly choose to forego compassion and understanding if it meant they could spread vitriol and hate?

By definition, empathy means having the ability or capacity to understand and relate to the feelings of another. The opposite of this sentiment, apathy, means the lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. Many would argue that having empathy shows strength and bravery. On the surface, it would seem to be a simple concept. Being able to listen to and understand the plight of others, as well as being able to sympathize with their struggles, is something that is regarded by many as a basic humanistic trait. But surprisingly, the concept of caring for others and their well-being is often found absent. It’s even more jarring when it’s absent in people we should be viewing as the leaders of our world.

It is this author’s belief that in order to truly feel empathetic, one must experience loss and grief first. I believe that those who have worked hard for the things they have in life and have truly suffered from loss are typically more capable of feeling empathy, as compared to those who have never had to suffer or had to experience loss before. My first encounter with loss came at a young age when my great-grandfather passed away after a stroke. While I cannot pretend to have had a thorough relationship with him, his passing helped me to understand that each of us will eventually come to the end of the line. I’d once again dance with the phantom Death later in life when my grandfather wouldn’t survive an operation, and once again when a high-school friend would succumb to stage four melanoma cancer. There are many other instances, but these were the most prominent ones in my life.

And while the pain and sorrow I felt were real, to me it only played testament that the range of human emotion is paramount to anything else. While these individuals, ones that I had loved and cared for, had left me behind to journey into the unknown, I was still here pondering the feelings I had to face with their departure. And while the pain still echoes within me, I am grateful to have learned how that pain felt at such an early age.

The empathy that was felt for me on those days helped to comfort me in my time of sorrow. Along with those dark feelings, I was also enveloped with love, kindness, and compassion. Family and friends saw to it that I needed nothing. They were there for me to talk to and to be a shoulder to cry on. They were there to show me that the world isn’t entirely gloomy. And every single day, I am thankful for those who comforted me when I needed it most.

My father always taught me to take a firm stance and work as hard as I could to reach my goals, and because of his advice, I now have achieved the career I love to do: teaching. Growing up, we didn’t struggle financially, but we also weren’t handed everything without question. Toys and goodies were worked for. Allowances were earned by doing chores and helping around the house. Later in life, gas had to be purchased with money we earned from working an hourly job. Car insurance was a responsibility we had to manage into our own finances. Tuition had to be paid out of pocket, or we had to find funding through other sources, such as scholarships or grants. We were taught the value of the dollar and what it meant to work for our wage. And because of this, I grew into the kind of person who values merit and work ethic. And anytime I have to call my father to say “Hey dad, I might need you to spot me a few bucks to get some gas in my tank,” it’s never without an offer to earn that cash.

People who struggle to make ends meet are often the humblest people you will meet. Mostly because even though they find themselves in hardships regarding finances, they usually aren’t quick to point fingers and place blame. They’re often times faster to try and work towards a solution instead of pout about what they don’t have. These kinds of people are those who understand what it means to work hard and still not come out on top, and these are the kinds of people who are willing to lend a helping hand, as to lessen the burdens of others who are stuck in that very same loop. I cannot safely say that if my father hadn’t instilled these lessons in me that I would be where I am today, and for that, I am truly grateful to him for guiding me in the right direction.

In today’s age, where everyone has access to instant information at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, we have finally found ways to make our voices heard across the globe. Humans have found themselves at a unique time in history where we are all still in the infancy of fully understanding the consequences of being able to communicate en-masse. The internet is the most powerful tool that humanity has ever created. All at once, we are able to instantly connect with people across the world and share information with them whenever we please. We can pick up a small book-sized device and place a call, only to see the faces of loved ones on our screen. We are able to broadcast ourselves to audiences the likes of which were unfathomable only decades ago. We are able to make our voices heard, our opinions known, and our messages made clear.

But this isn’t always a positive thing. With the invention of the internet and its popularity, we have also given people the ability to spread misinformation, malice, and hate. Dark things brood in the deepest corners of the Web and this all-powerful tool has enabled those evils to reach out with their grasping talons and take hold of many, many people. Cyberbullying is a plague that has claimed many, many victims. But it isn’t just our youth who are extorting this powerful tool. We see it on the daily. You can’t browse a news article without reading social media comments pushing death threats, calls for suicide, and hateful speech that you would never want your children to hear. You can’t click a YouTube video that has comments enabled and escape without seeing racial slurs, hateful words, and violent ideas. The internet has given everyone a voice, and many people feel that being behind a keyboard shrouds them with a veil of anonymity, and because of this, they will spew their deepest, darkest thoughts without weighing the consequences. To these people, it’s only words and they don’t see the impact those words have on others. When venom is so easily spread, it isn’t surprising when so many become poisoned, tainted by a toxicity that isn’t easily cured.

Humans are strange creatures indeed. With this power, you would think that more would be quick to use the resources available to them to spread love, joy, and kindness. That isn’t to say that these types of people don’t exist, but they definitely aren’t the ones that catch the attention of the masses. Media outlets have quickly usurped the power of the internet to advertise, inform, and direct attention away from the positive in hopes that people will instead take interest in the negative. “Distraction” is a common word to describe what is happening. Whether it be NFL players kneeling for the National Anthem whose motives have been distorted to seem as if they are trying to disrespect the flag, violence surrounding peaceful protests that exist to vocalize concerns for the direction in which our country is headed, or attacks on state workers, police officers, and citizens being used for political gain to push agendas, there is always a negative story overshadowing the positive ones. News agencies will be quick to warn us of the nuclear activity of foreign countries but will ignore local charities raising money to help cure children with cancer. They’ll post stories about Brexit, the latest drug and money laundering scandals, and the faults of the current administrations in office, but turn their backs on the thousands of individuals reporting to Puerto Rico to bring food, water, and shelter for those who have nothing. Negativity sells and news agencies are looking to make a quick buck.

And the divide it is creating is swiftly entangling us all in its tendrils. Now more than ever, people are searching for and finding reasons to distance, segregate, and divide themselves. Race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender, economic standing, nation of origin, patriotism…all are common reasons that people will look at other people in hopes of finding reasons to dislike one another. When was the last time you browsed your Facebook News Feed without running across a heated argument over one of these topics? When was the last time you could actively enjoy hearing news from your family and friends without it being tainted by discussions of these natures? Instead of unifying in solidarity, we as a species instead choose to differentiate ourselves from one another. And it is slowly becoming the norm in our society. Individuals will congregate with others who share similar beliefs or ideas, then turn to them for support and approval when it comes to their disdain for others. And more often than not, they are validated by the echo chamber they have populated, instead of being deterred for their negativity.

But not everyone is out to prove they are a hateful bigot. Not everyone has a deep, embedded desire to spread misery. The best of humanity blossoms during times of tragedy. As the late Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Compassion is one of the strongest driving forces in the spectrum of human emotion. Those who are empathetic to the suffering of others will always find a way to make their brilliance shine. We should all strive to be such beautiful beacons in such a dark, cold world.

Humanity is in dire need of renewal. We have come such a far distance; too far to turn around and begin walking back the way we came. We’ve struggled too much as a society to revert back to our wicked pasts. We’ve grown too much to act so immaturely. We’ve learned a great deal from our past mistakes, but if we don’t realize how much hate is being spread, we are doomed to repeat our hateful past.

We as a society need to brush up on what it means to be empathetic. We as a society need to realize that a lack of empathy is detrimental to everything we are building. We should be more willing to stand up and help others to their feet when they stumble, not disregard them and say “At least it isn’t me.” We should be quick to act when our neighbors falter and need help. We should be more swift to restore those whose foundations have crumbled. We should recognize when others around us are hurting so that we can ease their pains.

It is easy to become lost on the harsh realities of our world. So often, we are all too concerned with our own struggles and our own anxieties to realize that everyone around us has similar stresses they must battle with. But the realization that every other person around us lives a life just as intricate. and complex as our own can and will truly open your eyes to the reality that all of us are equally important. We all love. We all breathe. We all stress and worry. We all try to fulfill our obligations. Anyone death is equally as tragic as another. This realization, which has been coined as “sonder”, is humbling and heavy, but it’s a realization that I truly wish more people would discover.

The lack of empathy will only cause more strife.  I shudder to think of what our society would ultimately become if we all were accepting of the apathetic. To stand by and simply watch others turn a cold shoulder to suffering is to enable that behavior. As John Coffey said in Steven King’s Green Mile “I’m sick of people being ugly to each other.” For the sake of us all, we need to collectively make a stand and state our disapproval of such actions. I only hope that more people feel the same way as I do, and next time, before someone begins to spew their vitriol anonymously online, they might take a second to consider what they are saying, consider who might read it, and simply step away from the keyboard. Ed Harris’s character in That’s What I Am stated it the best: “Human Compassion + Dignity = Peace.” The very least that we could do for each other is be dignified and respect each other as we struggle to find peace. And what can be more American than ensuring a peaceful existence for everyone we know? The pursuit of happiness is something all of us fight for. So why not ensure that we help each other to attain it?

The views and opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author.