One need not be a single millennial gal with her toes in the online dating cesspool to know that our world today lacks a certain humanity. Yet perhaps such a gal experiences this sad fact more than most, the harsh reality of which sears her heart like the sides of a pan-fried ribeye. Gone seem the days where humans shared in acceptable manners, genuine consideration and authentic connection.
Here instead are the days of entitlement, of disregard, of individualism so fierce it can accurately be called selfishness. Here are the days of overstimulation, of sensationalized media, of blindness to reality in favor of a carefully crafted social media newsfeed. The world of today is one of moral convenience. Our values and our relations are tenuous and bend in the direction of ever-changing trends.
It is no secret that the world of today has many deficits. And trendy though it seems, empathy remains the biggest scarcity of all. The scientific and social meanings of empathy have changed over time yet at its core empathy simply indicates connection. Empathy is more than an enlightened moral stance; it is the adhesive for humanity and its collective experiences. To empathize is to bond, to understand, to care. To empathize is to relate to a piece within ourselves in order to feel with someone else. To empathize is to live a genuine life.
To empathize is both human and divine.
After nearly a decade in social work, I am no stranger to empathy. In my professional interactions I strive to understand the motivations, values and feelings of the vulnerable and disenfranchised people whom I serve. Years ago I learned that I do not possess the words to alleviate the profound suffering of others, nor will I ever. Years after that I accepted that trying to ease such anguish is futile. I instead worked to connect to the agony and distress of others as if it were my own. Sometimes this comes easy. Sometimes I struggle to attach or seek understanding of an individual’s circumstances.
And this struggle is never more real than in my personal life. This evening on my way home from work I flipped off a cyclist, yelled at a red car and willed a certain pedestrian to hell when he dies. The cyclist, the driver of the red car and the pedestrian all acted like idiots but absent from the equation was my empathy. Perhaps the cyclist had a rough day and was eager for a dirty gin martini. Perhaps the driver of the red car is going through a breakup and finding it difficult to concentrate. Perhaps the pedestrian had a hot date to get ready for.
As I stewed and road-raged at a red light, Dionne Warwick’s “What The World Needs Now” floated through my speakers. Her sweet voice refreshed my irritated spirit. Yet I realized that what the world needs now isn’t love, it’s empathy. Empathy is the anecdote to dehumanization, the cure for egocentricity. Empathy will restore our humanity. Empathy is not instinctive. It is acquired. Empathy is a choice.