Whatever Happened to Empathy?
I wrote this several years ago, but the situation seems to have gone downhill ever since. Empathy and compassion are now weaknesses, to be treated with contempt.
Years ago, empathy used to be imbibed with mother’s milk. If you did something thoughtless or inconsiderate, mom or dad said, “How do you think that made them feel?” or “How would you feel if someone said (or did) that to you?”
Eventually, you learned to reflect upon the beliefs, customs and feelings of other people, not only in foreign countries, but in other areas of your own. If you were really lucky, your folks or your buddy’s folks subscribed to National Geographic magazine. After you got over your pre-adolescent sniggering over the occasional naked breast, you began to realize how diverse and rich in customs our beautiful world was. Now, with the advent of home entertainment centers and global satellite links, the world has shrunk to the size of our livingroom. With this benefit, we should be far beyond provincialism and jingoism, but unfortunately our current obsession with the “bottom line” seems to have blunted many of our human sensibilities. Empathy seems to have faded. The ability to put yourself in another’s place is now looked upon as a weakness. This extends not just to foreign nations and customs, but to our own.
The jobless and homeless in this nation, whose numbers are legion, are not freeloading parasites. They are, for the most part, people whose living has vanished as company after company has closed plants and “outsourced” the work to countries where people work for a few dollars per day, then move them even further when they find a place that accepts pennies per day, or perhaps just a bowl of rice. These companies, or their managing staff, look upon every dollar spent on employee retirement funding, medical plans, or workplace safety, as money wasted; money which could go into their pockets or into the acquisition of yet another company which can be raided and dismantled for profit.
To these people, the workers they displace are not people, they are merely ciphers. There is no empathy, they do not put themselves in the place of those desperate men and women trying to feed, clothe and house their families.
Albert Pike, writing for Freemasons in the nineteenth century said, “Teach the employed to be honest, punctual and faithful as well as respectful and obedient to all proper orders: but also teach the employer that every man or woman who desires to work, has a right to have work to do; and that they, and those who from sickness or feebleness, loss of limb or bodily vigor, old age or infancy, are not able to work, have a right to be fed, clothed, and sheltered from the inclement elements: that he commits an awful sin against Masonry and in the sight of God, if he closes his workshops or factories, or ceases to work his mines, when they do not yield him what he regards as sufficient profit, and so dismisses his workmen and workwomen to starve; or when he reduces the wages of man or woman to so low a standard that they and their families cannot be clothed and fed and comfortably housed; or by overwork must give him their blood and life in exchange for the pittance of their wages: and that his duty as a Mason and Brother peremptorily requires him to continue to employ those who else will be pinched with hunger and cold, or resort to theft and vice: and to pay them fair wages, though it may reduce or annul his profits or even eat into his capital; for God hath but loaned him this wealth and made him His almoner and agent to invest it.”
When Pike wrote this, the industry of the United States, and that of other industrialized nations, was controlled by the robber barons, or “Captains of Industry,” as they preferred to be called. To get an idea of the condition of the working class, one should read some of Dickens’ novels, set in the slums of industrialized England.
Many writers, including Dickens, brought enlightened views as to the dignity of man, as our Constitution had put forth the rights of man. The great depression of the 1930’s brought forth Franklin D. Roosevelt, who instituted programs to provide jobs, and to see that none should be left to starve after their working years had ended. World War II left the world with hope, as the United States set out to help rebuild a ravaged planet. The United Nations was established so that all nations, all peoples, would have a forum to solve disputes without resort to war and violence; to promote programs to end famine, ignorance and poverty. To a degree, this worked. It was not perfect, but at least it provided a forum for understanding. People had empathy. They could put themselves in other’s places and understand and feel their problems. Slowly, we were taking steps forward.
Suddenly, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, which should have been a time of hope, we suddenly reverted to the days of the robber barons. Greed and expediency outweighed every other value. Laws and treaties which had given hope to the world were unilaterally discarded. The wealthy were given breaks beyond their wildest dreams. We suddenly became the power which, with overwhelming military force, could stand astride the globe, dictating what other nations must do, making war upon those that did not kowtow to the new power.
Whatever happened to empathy? How did the world suddenly become inhabited by good, red-blooded Americans and a bunch of gooks, slopes, ragheads, hadjis and any other pejorative which makes them seem less than human? How did the world suddenly become us and them? How is it that no one’s beliefs and concerns have validity except ours? How has it come about that the world is now divided between us, our few allies, and a world of terrorists?
Islam is not a religion of terror. It is a kind and loving religion, drawing its influence and origin from the time of Abraham. It regards the religions of Israel and Christianity as also being, “People of the Book.” Unfortunately, it has its fanatical adherents, just as we do, but in the main, the Muslim peoples are no different than us. All they ask of us, of the world, is the chance to live in peace, to raise their families and provide food, clothing and shelter for them. To educate them and teach them to live in peace when their generation matures. These are hard lessons to teach in the midst of death, starvation, war and killing. When this is all you know, you lose your ability to have empathy and put yourself in another’s place. You then grow to learn that there is you and the enemy, and you kill the enemy. If you have no hope, then life becomes cheap and it is easy to sacrifice it; to strap a bomb on your body and walk into a building full of humans, who are no longer humans, but the enemy, and push the button.
Somehow, we must take hold of our destiny and our lives and return to a path of peace and construction. War, greed and destruction is not working. A good start would be to once again learn the skill of empathy, and learn again to put ourselves in another’s place. As we would not be treated, so should we not treat others. Come to think of it, isn’t that covered in the Golden Rule?
I wrote this in about 2001, then republished it in my blog in 2010.
Perhaps it might be a good reminder today.