Why We Need Empathy More Than Ever

A lack of empathy poses dangers on all levels great and small.

In 2014, my friend Samantha Eyler penned a piece on the use of metaphors to ignite social change. “Love is a muscle”—the crux of her column—enabled Sam to form healthier relationships and view love as an infinite resource rather than a limited commodity. By flexing and strengthening our capacity for love, we can experience the joy derived from altruism, rely less on defense mechanisms like jealousy, and become better communicators in our relationships.

And following the mass shooting at Orlando’s gay club Pulse over the weekend, I don’t think we can argue against a greater capacity for love.

I recently thought about extending Sam’s metaphor from love to empathy. Originally, this came out of a happy hour talk I had with a co-worker about higher education. He argued that the most important role of a professor is to conduct, publish, and promote research. I disagreed, believing that a professor’s chief role is to meet the 20-odd students in the room where they are and get them to where they need to be.

“No, that’s what teaching assistants are for,” he replied. I realized that this divide may be one of the greatest problems affecting education in America: Too many educators prioritizing self-promotion over the students who signed up for their guidance.

If empathy and selflessness are essential to careers in education, then these skills are by extension essential for us to pass on. I was fortunate to attend an international education conference in Denver earlier this month and hear New York Times columnist David Brooks speak on empathy in the classroom. During his plenary, he stressed motivating students to “make moral self-improvements,” an idea he has also circulated in his book The Road to Character and articles like “The Moral Bucket List.” In the latter, Brooks writes:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

Social scientists are particularly concerned about an increasing lack of empathy in America. Citing tests like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), Psychology Today reports that “approximately 70% of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did the average student 30 years ago.” This change has been attributed to a mix of the self-esteem parenting movement of the ’90s, an increasing number of social media platforms that foster “oversharing” and instant, near-effortless means of garnering attention, and less time spent in cooperative play with peers.

But I also believe that, to a degree, low empathy “scores,” are a natural part of being a young adult and traditional student. College is a time of firsts—living on your own, managing your own schedule, thinking ahead to the person you’ll be after graduation—and when I was a college senior, I recognized just how easy it was to get bogged down in the “world of me.” As a result, I made a concerted effort to be more empathetic and socially intelligent. I pushed myself to ask how my mom was when she called instead of blindly inundating her with the details of my own life. I pushed myself to be a better listener when my friends aired problems or stresses, instead of steering the conversation elsewhere. Myriad more platforms beyond the one I knew as a teenager (Myspace) have only added to this communication challenge in the 21st century, as students today spend more time crafting their identities in public spaces than ever before.

Most of my “empathy muscle” training didn’t take place until I began to build a life for myself. Before my parents split up when I was 23, I had understood divorce as little more than something that happens to 50% of the population. Going through it personally, especially as an adult when nothing is sacred, deepened my understanding of the psychological strain that many of my friends had already experienced. I realized that divorce is one of many life changes that is layered and nuanced, and that as a writer, I could potentially help other adult children of divorce by adding to a body of resources. Similarly, when I found myself earning well under 30k with a graduate degree, I finally knew what living paycheck to paycheck looked like. I was not “too good” to shop at discount grocery stores or to peruse yard sales for home decor. My four years as an adjunct fostered a drive to listen to the stories of my colleagues and raise visibility for a nationwide problem.

Is personal experience a requirement for developing empathy? Of course not, but listening is. Listen to someone else’s troubles without imposing or projecting your own. Listen to what’s going on in parts of the world you haven’t visited or in career fields that are not your own. Listen, for instance, to your friends and family who assist inmates with literacy skills and animal training programs, so that you may learn to view prisoners as people. Though our society is massively driven by STEM fields, we will never be able to solve “wicked” problems—like recidivism—without adding emotional intelligence to the mix.

A lack of empathy poses dangers on all levels great and small. Not too long ago, a former flame admitted to bonding with people in order to manipulate them later. Gross? Yes. An extreme example? Yes. (Hopefully.) But it’s also a cautionary tale of how unbridled selfishness and unchecked ego play out in daily life. If we view every interaction as a game to be won, people become pawns. We approach the world asking the question, “What’s in it for me?” rather than “What can I learn?” or “How can I help?”

The news is rife with evidence that we need empathy more than ever, particularly during this election cycle. Donald Trump is the natural result of rising narcissism scores and the popular concept of ignorance as a valued trait. And though his opponents highlight the “us vs. them” rhetoric and hateful vitriol he spews on a regular basis, the heart of the matter is that Trump, as Bill Maher pointed out on last Friday’s Real Time, is against anyone who isn’t Trump. Trump certainly does not value the needs of certain groups, but more terrifying is the fact that he values no one’s needs outside of his own. His supporters, simply pawns to be used for personal gain, are not exempt from his inability to empathize.

David Brooks concluded his speech with a call to “uphold certain standards [of character] for our country.” In the White House, and everywhere else, I believe that this is possible with some deliberate flexing.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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