In a World Without Empathy

John DriggsImagine living in a world where no one is capable of understanding anybody else’s feelings. In such a world, someone could grasp how you feel only if he or she had exactly the same experiences you’ve had. If they hadn’t had those experiences they would have no idea what you are talking about. Consequently, you’d likely feel all alone in your solitary circumstances. Of course then you would have no way to feel loved since the experience of true love is about someone else accepting us as we really are and not for how we match up to their expectations. Such a world would be grim and lifeless even though our basic needs are met. We would likely wither and die in such a world.

Other problems arise in a loveless world. It would be impossible to trust anyone else as trust is built on faith leaps and human compassion. We would have no way to experience the safety of others unless they exactly conformed to our expectations. Each of us would be self-appointed emperors of our own little world. Inevitably, it would be a rather lonely world as people would undoubtedly fail our expectations and couldn’t be trusted. It would be a world where others exist essentially for our own pleasure and would have no meaning to us otherwise. In fact we wouldn’t even need to know much about the needs of others. We would each be objects to one another. Conflicts between people would exponentiate as differences between people could not be compromised. Lawyers in such a world would have a field day and almost all aspects of living would have a legal risk. There would be only winners and losers in such a world and most of us would eventually lose. Any creativity would be stifled as the risk of stepping on someone else’s toes would be too great if we dared to innovate. Life would have a plastic empty feel where everyone would have to behave perfectly. Our immune systems would get compromised in the absence of true love and many of us would suffer from chronic illnesses. Most would die of a broken heart.

In a cold world there would be a purposelessness to living since doing good for others wouldn’t have much benefit. Each of us may have many things that please us materially but our spiritual lives and moral compass would wither away. If an elderly person fell in the street we would look the other way and lose the opportunity to do good for others. We would develop an “Every man for himself mentality” and feel quite fictitiously autonomous until we fell in the street ourselves. Such voids of life meaning would prompt us to continually chase after material rewards in an effort to fill the emptiness within. But our emptiness would never get filled and we would have to chase after happiness like a hamster on a wheel going nowhere.

Perhaps the ultimate loss in a world without empathy would be the loss of our own identities. We would exist but not really. Any emotion we have inside ourselves would have little use. It could never be understood or taken seriously nor would it connect us to others and essentially have no value. Consequently we would lose our affective abilities and turn into self-important robots. We would be all image and no substance. We might look like we are alive but we are in fact the living dead. “Dead man walking” would have a whole new meaning in a world without compassion.

You might object to this seemingly pointless fantasy, saying, “Why worry about living in a world without empathy? I would answer by saying, “We are already living in a world with diminishing empathy. According to research about one in six of us is already incapable of empathy. Compassion loss can only get worse if we don’t pay attention.

Are we already living in a compassionless world?

First the good news. At least five in six of us has the capacity to tune into others, although we may infrequently exercise this capacity. Many of us socially connected individuals are only too happy to donate to charities, come to the immediate assistance of people in natural disasters and volunteer like crazy for all kinds of causes. Young people are particularly interested in social justice and have an uncanny appreciation for human diversity. The instantaneous shock value of our fellow human suffering is made way more poignant through the miracle of social media and mainstream TV. The visceral experiences of human pain have never been more connecting for many of us. With the Internet we can also be empowered to respond to those crises and make a difference. Few of us can easily hide from the world these days. Our global world has connected us all in the most basic of ways.

However, there is also a down side to our social changes. Hard research shows that college students are more narcissistic than in the past 30 years and choose to go to college to be rich rather than to grow as persons or make a difference in the world. Colleges strain these days to have their students self-reflect and look within themselves to how their character is being shaped by their life decisions and function instead as career training courses that glamorize wealth as the measure of success. Schools may want to think differently in how students are trained but due to cutthroat competition for enrollment they are forced to play the “Get rich quick” card with prospective students. The character- building aspect of schools is hardly considered. Learning is all about success. Consequently many students graduate from expensive schools with little ability for self-awareness and instead get plagued by social phobias and depression. Their student debt chains them to corporate America and lessens motivation for charity work and tuning in to others. Hence, the suicide rate of young adults has increased four times in the last 40 years. Too many of us live in our own little worlds, staring at our smart phones, even when caring for children. We are losing the ability to sit and reflect with each other in face-to-face interactions. We are cut off from others despite our ample communication opportunities. Our electronic devices make us smarter cognitively but much more dense emotionally.

How can we increase compassion?

Big changes always begin with a single step. We are all capable of increasing compassion in the world and in ourselves. The mere fact that we try to care for others will in itself reward our lives greatly. Here are some ideas:

1) Reduce your materialism. Solid research shows that putting profit before people in family life and being image-focused not only results in a slew of mental health problems but it also lessens our ability for compassion. Read this research in The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser (MIT Press, 2002 and The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, Ph.D. (Harper Books, 2006). The impact of removing money as a way to buy and express love will have an astounding effect on your family and on yourself. When we don’t see love as a commodity we grow in compassion for ourselves and others. However, doing so requires courage and a game plan, which both of these books offer. The most disconnected and unhappy people are materialistic people, despite how much they have.

2) Shmooze with others, especially with people who make you uncomfortable and whom you dislike. Just hanging out with others in a face-to-face way has incredible health benefits. According to Harvard researcher Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2000) getting together socially with friends every three weeks has the same health benefits as quitting smoking. Putting yourself in another’s shoes exposes you to a whole different view of life and allows you to be more forgiving with those you dislike. You will begin to see the world in a way you never imagined yourself to see and you will learn to appreciate the complexity of life and your own depth. Doing so will make you a much nicer person and you will feel more secure that the world is not as scary as you thought before you made an effort to know your neighbor.

3) Work on emotional intimacy in your personal relationships. Perhaps you yourself are not as sensitive to others as you think you are or else you allow others to be insensitive to you. There is room for improvement in everyone. If you need help consult a reputable professional helper and read Too Close For Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy by Geraldine K. Piokowski (Perseus Publications, 1994). Often the lack of compassion we see in the world is more a hidden statement about ourselves. Getting close to others is something we can control and work on. Too many of us live in a safe prison of our own making and are too afraid to live outside our walls. When you can protect yourself in more flexible ways you will be amazed how beautiful the world looks and how truly sacred other people are.

4) Find and cultivate a spiritual community for yourself. Words cannot do justice to what it is like to be around people who regularly see the bigger picture of life and practice forgiveness and care for others. Obviously, it is best not to be in a cult when you do this. Get involved in volunteer work with your community. Do regular small acts of charity for others. You will become what you do. The Sisters of St. Joseph said it best, “It’s not that we do great things. It’s that we do small things with great love.”


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice inSt. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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