Empathy–and Lack of It

To me, it seems like people just don’t care much about each other anymore. American culture in particular is full of examples:

Empathy-Free Television

Take television. We are apparently supposed to laugh at people getting hurt or embarrassed on TV all the time–certainly, there are reality TV shows which brutally depict how much we all lack empathy for each other.

I have a hard time even watching parts of “America’s Funniest Home Videos”–when there’s a clip of an innocent person being harmed by a prank or accident, I turn the channel. Forget about watching shows like “Wipeout” and “Most Extreme Elimination,” where the whole “name of the game” is watching people get hurt and knocked off stuff while attempting daring stunts, usually for money. I just can’t laugh at that.

Celebrities: Apparently Not Worth Our Empathy

But it’s not just the lack of empathy for physical pain. We expect celebrities of all types (political celebrities as well as singers, actors, etc.) to be perfect beings in all things. They are supposed to leave their houses looking absolutely fabulous, or they’re front-page news in the tabloids–“Is So-And-So Gaining Weight?” or “So-And-So–Too Thin?” Not to mention the “Best and Worst-Dressed Lists,” or the “Focus on Beach Bodies” types of articles in magazines.

And God help the celebrity who has an actual problem or who has made a mistake, either with addictions, family life, or some other area of their personal life. Somehow, they are supposed to be more than human because they’re famous, and every time a flaw of theirs is exposed, we’re scandalized. We gossip about them as if they are the scum of the earth, talking about them in ways we would never talk about our families and friends.

Family and Friends: Sometimes We Lack Empathy for Them, Too

More often than not, we also expect family and friends to never make a mistake, and have little empathy for them. Aunt So-and-so snubbed us at the last party? Forget going to her house this Christmas! And Cousin So-and-so forgot to send us a birthday card–obviously he doesn’t care enough about us. Sometimes we refuse to show empathy to the humans we claim to be closest to; we forget that they, just like us, are human, and as such, they are going to mess up and be imperfect sometimes. We have no sympathy for screw-ups, even the ones who are related to us by blood.

Politics: The Horrible Line Between “People I Empathize With” and “People I Demonize”

This is quite possibly the largest example of American empathy-less society: the us vs. them mentality in politics. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, most of us are either focused on building our own party up or tearing the other party down. Talking with our hands over our ears seems to be a common posture in political debates, and listening to the other side is just not an option. Empathy for the “other side of the fence” is almost a dirty phrase; seeing how the “enemy” lives and trying to understand them is folly.

What Is Empathy, Anyway?

We have to get over this and have empathy (not just fake sympathy) for our fellow men and women. Empathy means you imagine what it’s like to be in that person’s place, imagining the hurt they feel, the shame they endure, the life they lead.

One Example

I actually have empathy for Britney Spears; might be hard to believe it, but I do. She hit the fame jackpot at 15 and was thrust into a fantasy life, but that “fantasy” was actually made up of hard work, extremely long performance and rehearsal hours, and thousands of media appearances before the age of 18. Music was her life, and yet in order to do all she did, she had to cut away a large portion of what we consider “normal” life.

I look at her now, a woman only two years older than me, having now been through court battles, childbirths, and numerous family problems, and I try to imagine how life has been for her. I know I could never have put up with the demanding schedule she did at the same age she did. She hasn’t had the benefit of a normal life at all, really–her life dramas have been acted out in front of everyone instead of being endured, dealt with, and put into the past. She, like so many other celebrities who have so publicly had difficulties, is not allowed to grow from and forget her past mistakes.

Forgetting Empathy–Shoving Our Own Humanity Under the Rug

We forget, when we look at celebrities whose lives have crashed and burned, who are trying to put their lives back together after crisis, that they are simply humans who get more pictures taken of them than we do. They are humans, who will make mistakes, grow or shrink in crisis, and become stronger or weaker because of their issues.

We also tend to forget, while we make excuses for our own mistakes by saying “I’m only human,” that other people are also human and make mistakes. That includes our family members, our friends, our significant others, our role models, our politicians, and our favorite celebrities, among many others.

Becoming More Empathetic/Sympathetic

I would love to see a world in which we truly try to understand what others go through. We may never fully understand another person’s life, but at least we can try–we can imagine, and sympathize, and support where we can. I know, I know, this is America and we’re all supposed to be self-sufficient machines who never break down, but sometimes you can end up feeling mighty alone and broken amid all the perfect images passing you by.

If we could understand that every person has struggles and pain, just as we do, and if we could support each other to get through this, we might end up with a healthier world. We also might end up with a bunch of basketcases who never fight for themselves, go to war, or defend their rights–but maybe our motivations should be to defend each other’s rights anyway.

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