Are We in the Midst of an Empathy Crisis?
As I write this, breaking news of the devastating atrocity in Nice has emerged. My heart breaks. A photograph of a doll and some flowers lining the pavement near where the terrorist attack took place is a frequent share on social media platforms. My eyes well up. What on earth is happening in the world? It’s a child. Children have died here, for goodness sake.
It has only been a few months since the tragedies struck Brussels, an attack that killed 32 people, and injured hundreds more. The Paris attacks that took place in November last year not only shook the nation, but the world too. We all wept with France. It could have happened to anyone of us.
It seemed like everywhere we looked, news of another tragic event came in: Istanbul; the on-going devastation in Syria; the Dallas riots, and the killings of black Americans. We wept for mankind. But, with tragedy, questions began to arise. Despite the ongoing devastation, friends would share their condolences of yet another travesty in the world on Facebook, while simultaneously instagramming their sunset cocktails. Are we really in the midst of an empathy crisis? Can we switch off so easily?
Not according to Barry Clark*, an Australian driver who was involved in a fatal accident in the early 80s. As Barry was driving home from visiting a friend in southern New South Wales, he collided with a parked car, subsequently killing the young driver. It was an accidental death and Barry was not at fault, but he bore strong feelings of guilt and shame for many years. “It was the early 80s, after all. You just didn’t talk about these things. I wasn’t even offered a sedative and the police expected me to drive off home after the accident. I was numb,’’ he says. Barry’s experience shone some light. Times have changed. We are moving towards compassion. There’s been a gradual shift towards expressing our authenticity; our vulnerability. It is OK to not be OK. This is thanks to the famous TED Talk given by Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work. Brown’s talk focused on vulnerability. It touched the world. We can open up. Vulnerability is no longer seen as a weakness, but a strength.
Barry’s own journey changed. He moved from feelings of helplessness and feeling numb, to a sense of acceptance. “I hadn’t really talked about it with anyone. I moved overseas and travelling distracted me from my plight. I just thought I had to get on with it. Move on.” Years passed before Barry opened up. “I shared my experience with a friend I had met at my local Church and was relieved to find that the guy listened attentively, without judgement.’’ For Barry, this was the closure needed to move forward.
Times have changed. We offer more support in the form of counselling. Those suffering a crisis or have a mental health diagnosis can get a range of support. The old stiff upper lip attitude synonymous with British culture has shifted. Stigma towards mental health has slowly changed; not totally eradicated, but there is a movement towards a more compassionate culture. We could do more though.
Anne Barnes* is a UK based nurse who lost her mother and home. She had to take time off work to look after her terminally ill mother and subsequently lost her job. She described a distinct lack of empathy from work colleagues during the time of crisis. “I was silenced. No one wanted to talk about it.” Things were different at home, where she had the support from friends to help her through it.
Psychologists suggest the lack of empathy in times of trouble is a natural shield or disavowal against negative emotions. We can easily turn a blind eye to tragedies that are happening over there. It is easier to switch off from the suffering of the Other when we do not relate to that culture. That is why the western world were shocked by the events in Paris, yet destruction in Syria is a daily occurrence.
Empathy is a developed life skill. We cultivate empathy through imagining the thoughts and feelings of another person; understanding their world as they see it. Empathy is simply being sympathetic to the needs of others, showing compassion, grace, and acceptance. We can honour a person that is going through a difficult time in life with our time, offering a helping hand, and showing our support. Holly Daniels*, a 37 year old Personal Assistant, experienced this when she confessed a painful episode in her life to a close friend. Her friend burst into tears and she knew that her own pain had been shared. “I didn’t need words. I had all the comfort I needed.” For Holly, the pain of suffering was alleviated by the compassion and empathy offered by her friend.
**Originally published by Sarah Tottle in The Huffington Post.