In a society that is conditioning us into a lifestyle of apathy, how do we resist the narrative?
I believe we have collectively grown more apathetic. Our society has trained us to be individualistic, even to the point of narcissism. We are most concerned about our ease, our comfort, and stockpiling resources for ourselves. And we even have right-sounding reasons to explain away our apathetic ways:
“I’m just doing what’s best for my child.”
“There’s only so much you can do. Trust the process.”
“We can’t just have open borders!”
As we have become more of an individualistic society, we’ve found it increasingly difficult to truly be good neighbors, especially toward people who may be different from us. Just a casual scroll through social media and you’ll find a variety of causes and issues that you’re being asked to care about. It’s easy to get numb to the needs of the world and instead focus on how you feel crushed by the overwhelming amount of information.
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But we are born with empathy. Neuroscientists discovered we have mirror neurons that allow us to care about those around us and connect. If we are born with empathy, apathy must be a learned behavior and a condition of brokenness. One researcher states, “Empathy is the righteous struggle to try to be in someone’s shoes.”
It’s important to rekindle our capacity for understanding the experience of the other and actually entering into another’s story. Empathy doesn’t make assumptions, nor is it judgmental. Empathy forges validating and compassionate communication. Empathy changes us. It helps us rewrite the narratives we tell ourselves about others. Empathy enlarges our capacity to love, to forgive, to sit with, to connect, and to be accepting.
One way to gain empathy? Books.
We can’t actually walk in someone else’s shoes—there will always be experiences we can’t possibly relate to. I experienced this when immersing myself in issues of injustice in mass incarceration. I knew the statistics, but through the books I read, I came to feel the plight of real people in complex circumstances. I was able to develop my empathy for those in the criminal justice system. My empathy inspired me to participate in and support prison ministry efforts.
How do we begin to shift our responses, change our minds, and set a new course toward empathy? We can start by pausing and thinking about how we want others to respond to our circumstances and situations. Ask yourself: Given the same situation, how would I want someone to respond to me? How would I like someone to react if this were my story? What actions would I want others to take if this were me or my family member?
The news cycle gives us the highlights, but books give us the ability to connect with the person and the situation in a deeper way. The more background information we have, the more we will be able to connect with people, issues, and stories that are unfamiliar. In the end, we realize the human experience is more similar than different. And though the details change, our humanity is something that is timeless and relatable.
We have to allow ourselves the time to allow books to connect us to the larger story. When we slow down to immerse ourselves in a book, we’re able to connect with stories that improve our capacity to understand and empathize. We bear witness to stories that we otherwise would never know.
The extraordinary thing about empathy is that the more we exercise our empathetic muscles, the more developed our emotional intelligence becomes. As our emotional intelligence improves, it changes us internally and gives us the ability to change the world around us.
What can we do to help improve our personal empathy?
1. Read books and stories from diverse people with life experiences and circumstances different from your own.
2. Write down situations in which you would want others to have empathy for you. Understand the differences between sympathy, which provokes pity, and empathy, from which flows sorrow and lament. Empathy leads us toward systemic change and justice. Sympathy is self-centered and disconnected from the true experiences of the person hurting.
3. Be willing to learn from others. Connect with others outside of your societal bubble. Empathy helps you improve social skills and social connections.
4. Listen to others. Empathy fuels collaboration, which produces increased productivity within the workplace and within the home.
5. Recall a time when others have shown you empathy. Meditate, journal, or share about that experience with someone else.
Featured Image: @gballgiggs via Twenty20