Sometimes when I’m reading the news I come across a story that takes my mind to unexpected places.
That was the case last week when I discovered a piece on NPR.com about research indicating that younger people are less empathetic than older generations. I think they’re missing something.
I’ve always felt I understood empathy, since I often mention it in my writing as the inspiration for acts of justice.
But I Googled the word to get a proper definition. Here’s what Psychology Today has to say: “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.”
This is literally why I went into journalism, and why so many people, young and old, choose to make it their life’s work to understand, bear witness to and improve the world around us.
While it’s true that many of my columns are personal, it’s not because I get a thrill from telling my business in the morning paper. It’s because I genuinely want people who aren’t like me — i.e. the majority of this paper’s readership — to see through my eyes.
To more thoroughly understand where you and the people I write about are coming from, which is both my job and my passion, I need to be transparent about where I’m coming from. My filters — shaded by life experiences and lessons learned — matter in how I relate to others, and whether I feel for them. So do yours.
To relate to another person or community — to feel someone’s hardship and take to heart their aspirations for a better life, that’s the stuff of great leaders and good citizens.
But it seems as if it’s getting harder to achieve that ideal.
If the researchers are right about empathy, what are the implications for those of us who are passionate about exposing injustice and seeking pathways to justice?
The rapid pace of technological change and the 24-hour news cycle threaten to numb us to the human condition — as well as the impulse to walk in someone else’s shoes and do something about the crises that bother us the most.
My hunch, though, is that empathy, especially among the leaders and concerned citizens of the future, may be what keeps us from veering too far toward the oblivion of mindless inaction.
I, for one, am blown away by this generation’s activism on behalf of movements they care about, many of them inspired by grief over the hardship, suffering, silencing and marginalization of others.
Pick your recent cause: Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, anti-racism; #MeToo, income inequality, immigrant rights, environmental justice.
Young people have played a huge role in pushing for greater public awareness on all of those fronts.
As we come to terms with the reality that our country is heading toward majority-minority status, with more women, LGBTQ people and people with immigrant backgrounds speaking out and claiming seats at tables long denied to them, it seems to me that empathy is on the march, not in retreat.
We currently have the most diverse class ever in the U.S. House of Representatives, in part because voters are more ready to relate to and support leaders who don’t look like them, come from where they come from or live the way they live.
We have young people to thank, at least in part, for that, too.
One real cause for concern in the research is that younger people appear to be more selective about their empathy, reserving it for those they deem deserving and people they like. That might be a problem when it comes to identifying and addressing harm or injustice.
On the other hand, look at what we’re facing. The champions of exclusion, diminishment and scapegoating — and of the idea that empathy is a sign of weakness — they’re on the march, too, in response to the same cultural shifts.
We need to understand the lives and choices of people who hold those views, just not in the service of enabling or making excuses for bigotry.
I love this passage from an essay on empathy by the Rev. Dana Trent in Sojourners, a magazine focused on “the intersection of faith, politics and culture”: “There are three things I know to be true,” writes Trent, who’s also a professor of world religions. “First, empathy makes the ‘other’ our neighbor; second, empathy increases with use; third, it’s difficult to hate that which you take time to understand.”
I feel you. And I know I’m not the only one.
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