Recent academic studies that have purported to show we are far less empathetic than we once were are, like all social science research, open to question. Any attempt to measure our feelings is naturally rife with possibilities for error, misinterpretation, and researcher bias.
However, there does seem to be a lot of anger and frustration running through our nation’s interactions and discourse right now, and few would argue that the desire take the time to understand the viewpoints of others is at a shockingly low ebb. Like punch drunk boxers in the ninth round of a tough bout, we seem preoccupied with delivering an exhausted knock out blow—mostly with words, thankfully—to those with whom we disagree, and many apparently are convinced that those who think or act differently than they do are evil, stupid, or both.
Why is this so?
Empathy obviously tends to diminish when people slip into survival mode. Given that so many Americans never quite managed to recover from the Great Recession—and many more were struggling even before the financial system melted down in 2008—it should not be a surprise that some are saving their concern only for themselves and their loved ones.
Given the startling and ever-increasing costs of healthcare, housing, education, childcare, and almost all basic needs, the task of just staying afloat can wear down even the nicest people among us. Add to these economic pressures the extraordinary personal stresses now afflicting so many individuals, families, and communities, and it is easy to see that worrying about others might be a luxury that some simply cannot afford. To take an extreme example, the novel Night, Elie Wiesel’s horrifying account of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, strongly suggests that human kindness could well be an acquired habit rather than an inborn trait, so we might not be at our most empathetic when we are under the most duress.
Moreover, although we have managed to slaughter one another with clockwork regularity and precision throughout human history in spite of (and sadly sometimes because of) organized religion, over the past couple of thousand years it has at least attempted to act as a bulwark against our basest instincts and provide a mechanism for moral thought, communal charity—and empathy for those who are suffering. Communities of faith have established and maintained hospitals across the globe, led worldwide movements to abolish innumerable human rights abuses, and been there to comfort the most afflicted in their darkest and loneliest moments.
The educated elite might sneer at religion, deeming it a vestigial artifact of our cave-dwelling ancestors fears and superstitions, but it could be plausibly argued that modern secularism is leaving a grievous and damaging void in the hearts of many—one that cannot be filled by opioids, hook ups, or huge flat screen televisions.
Learning that life is about more than sensations and material possessions is a road many have traveled, and a yearning for caring connections with those around us—empathy, in other words—is baked into the fabric of a faith-based life. Efforts to teach empathy without faith in God or at least an emphasis upon a spiritual connection between us all typically resort to empty appeals to self-interest, which tends to diminish the impact of these lessons.
If empathy for others is presented as a mere transaction—“If I am nice to you, you will be nice to me”—this rapidly curdles into yet another form of selfishness that later becomes the bitterness many will feel when their kindnesses are not enthusiastically reciprocated. It is little wonder that cultural, social, racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender tribalism—the “identity politics” that now plague us—is the rage-filled rage today. This futile attempt to find comfort among “your own kind” perversely becomes the fuel for the continuing anger that leads to yet more need for refuge based upon our desperate self-labeling. Dante Alighieri wrote of the “circles of hell” in Divine Comedy, but our current circular and self-reinforcing daily hell—stoked by social media posts and shortsighted politicians—is much worse than what he imagined.
A lack of interest in the lives and needs of others is, unfortunately, likely self-perpetuating. After we form the harsh habit of privileging our own needs or the needs of the narrow group with which we identify, it is difficult—if not impossible—to ever learn to love all of humanity and care for its needs as well.