Ryan J. Bush, Ph.D.
A Crisis of Empathy
Updated: Sep 23, 2018
We live in a time when there’s a crucial lack of a basic resource. I'm talking not about water, food, or clean air, although those and other important resources are in short supply as well. I’m thinking of a different critical shortage — a critical shortage of empathy.
These days, there is so much sharp disagreement, tension, conflict and polarization between people, groups, and nations, that we’ve stopped being able to really see each other's humanity. We have seen this toxic attitude of confrontation everywhere, including in the dysfunctional conflict between political parties (such as conservative vs. liberal), the hatred and atrocity between races and tribes (such as neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us” and killing Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the cruel separation of immigrant families and putting children in cages, the genocide and persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, or Assad’s brutal killing of his fellow Syrians), and conflict between nations (such as Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, or the US government’s current attitude of starting trade wars and other disputes with practically everyone).
We also see this toxic attitude of confrontation at the personal level, with an increase in road rage, hate crimes, and all the horrific mass shootings, where the overall amount of violence in society leads more and more people to think that murder is an acceptable way to handle conflict. A less severe but still alarming example is the recent case of the Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader, who was revealed to have sent racist and homophobic tweets when he was 17 years old. When he walked onto the field for the All-Stars Game, he got a standing ovation — not as an outpouring of forgiveness for a wayward son who had finally come to his senses, but as a way to ‘stick it to’ liberals, progressives, and those who actually care about others.
These kinds of toxic conflict and lack of empathy aren’t entirely new, as they have been happening to some degree or another throughout human history. In fact, as I mention in A Singing Wire, the forthcoming book collaboration between me and my mother, Virginia Olsen Bush, my mother spoke out powerfully for the principle of empathy when she wrote a high school editorial in 1961 that got national and international attention. During the Great Famine in China, while public opinion in the U.S. was overwhelmingly opposed to sending food aid to communist China, my mother argued that we should pay allegiance to a higher principle, that of universal human dignity, and help others regardless of politics or dogma. After all, we are all fundamentally the same — we all want the same things — to be healthy, happy, free of suffering, free to live as we choose to, and to try to thrive in this challenging world.
While there has been conflict and a lack of empathy for a long time, they have now risen to crisis levels, and cannot be ignored any longer. These kinds of toxic conflict raise a number of important questions, such as:
Is this what we really want to be as a country and a world, condoning racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and winning at all costs, no matter how much others might suffer as a result?
Why does it have to be so difficult to see each other’s humanity?
What is wrong with constantly putting ourselves first, why should we care about others at all?
Before we can address these questions, though, we have to start with a more basic question.
Why is empathy important?
For one thing, our current situation gives us a clear view of what our world would be like if we let this pattern continue. This chronic atmosphere of conflict tends to erode the ties that bind us together — the feelings that there’s more than unites us than divides us, that we’re all in this together, and that there’s any need to be civil to each other. We’ve stopped having any interest in understanding each other, focusing only on helping our side win, and beating the enemy at all costs.
If we continue on our current trajectory, we should expect more mass shootings, more murder, more road rage, more international conflict, more wars, more genocides, and more toxic conflict at every level of society. The whole world will be more and more inextricably bound up in conflicts, making it even more difficult to return to some level of balance and harmony. As Gandhi succinctly put it, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Hopefully, we will realize that we are so much stronger when we work together to build us all up, rather than constantly tearing each other down. Think how vastly more productive the world would be if every single person everywhere could stop devoting as much time and energy to dealing with conflict, and could fully live up to their own potential. It’s like taking a huge chunk of the workforce out of commission because so many people are too caught up in conflict, either as oppressed or oppressor.
The biggest reason why empathy is important, though, may be the value it has for ourselves. If we only value our own self-interest, we force ourselves to live within an incredibly narrow silo, treating ourselves as a tiny speck in a vast, hostile universe that we are utterly unconnected to, living out a hollow, relatively meaningless existence in a struggle for domination over everything and everyone we meet, where the highest principle is the law of the jungle — might makes right.
However, as the 5th century Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa said (often attributed to the Buddha), if we are angry we are “like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” When we hold onto our anger and refuse to empathize with others, we don’t hurt others, we only hurt ourselves. On the other hand, when we do something to help someone else, no matter how small of a gesture, we feel good about ourselves, and our world becomes larger. As the Dalai Lama said (I’m paraphrasing because I haven't been able to find the exact quote again), “At some point our own personal happiness becomes too small a pursuit, and we are only satisfied by the larger concern of helping others.”
Or, as Charles Siebert says in "What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?" (The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2016), “We often think of empathy as a skill rather than the long-ago, neuronally ingrained bioevolutionary tool for survival that it actually is: the ability to inhabit the feelings of fellow beings (the word empathy derives from the Greek en, which means ‘in,’ and pathos, meaning ‘suffering’ or ‘experience’); the ability to feel, for example, their fear over a threat; or thrill over a newly found food source; or sorrow over a loss, which has as much to do with the fabric of a community as any other. Empathy, in this sense, can be thought of as the source of all emotion, the one without which the others would have no register.”
In her forthcoming book Talking with Chaucer: A Parrot’s English, my mother, Virginia O. Bush, makes a point that applies just as well to people as to parrots. “Siebert’s phrase relating ‘the fabric of a community’ to the evolutionary basis of empathy deserves special attention. He speaks at length about the social nature of parrots and the traumatic stress that may be endured by a bird in isolation from a flock, a community. This is a point that contemporary culture, at least in the U.S., may not fully appreciate — this idea that connection to a community may be essential to an individual's emotional well-being.”
How can we encourage empathy?
Generally speaking, empathy comes from experience — experiencing difficult situations ourselves, or paying attention to how others are affected by difficult situations. Toddlers and young children are famously lacking in empathy, not understanding that if they hit someone, it really hurts. It’s only after we ourselves get hurt, that we start to understand what pain is really like, and how awful it can be. After these early life lessons, most people learn some degree of empathy, but others don’t.
Why is it so difficult to see everybody’s common humanity and genuinely want the best for everybody? If someone hasn’t learned empathy yet, is there any way to help them learn?
One factor that increases empathy is the degree to which someone is exposed to the suffering of others. If we read a news story about some people being hurt or killed on the other side of the world, we may not have much empathy for them, especially if we just hear statistics and generalities. We may have much more empathy if we see images and video (such as images of Syrian victims of chemical attacks), or hear direct stories about individual people. The more directly we’re exposed to others’ experiences, the easier it is to feel empathy for them. If someone isn’t already interested in seeing these kinds of images and stories, no one can force them to pay attention, but the more widely that everyone’s stories are shared, the more hearts will be opened.
Another factor that affects empathy is how closely we feel related to others. After all, people usually tend to have more empathy for people in their own family, tribe or group. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to feel empathy for everyone and everything, no matter how similar or dissimilar to us they might seem, but that’s apparently human nature. Does everyone forget that all humans are ultimately related, going back to our common ancestors long ago in Africa, and that all humans, animals, and plants are part of the same huge family tree?
Ultimately, we’re all not just from the same family, we literally are one being — we’re all part of the same incomprehensibly-vast Oneness that some would call the Divine, the Source, the Dao, the Brahman, Rigpa, the Holographic Universe, the Great Chain of Being, God, or simply Everything-that-is. If we hurt someone, we’re really hurting another part of ourselves, as if our right hand decided to cut off our left hand, or one leaf of a tree decided it had to kill another leaf because it looked different. Are the fleeting pleasures of power, domination, money, lust, and fame really worth hurting another part of our own self? Are we so distracted by these crumbs of the physical world that we would close our hearts, blacken our souls, and deny everyone’s humanity including our own?
Of course, we don’t have to believe in Oneness, or anything else, to be able to practice empathy. We just have to see each other’s common humanity, and understand that we all want and deserve to be healthy, happy, free of suffering, free to live as we choose to, and to try to thrive in this challenging world. We don’t like it when we suffer, so why should we ever want anyone else to suffer? We may think that they ‘deserve’ to suffer based on their past actions, but if we wish suffering on anyone, we really don’t understand what suffering is. People deserve to learn from their mistakes, not suffer more. There has already been way too much suffering in the world.
One reason it is difficult to foster empathy is because of past history — conflicts are often perpetuated because each side wants revenge for times when they feel they were wronged in the past, locking both sides into a struggle that threatens to continue forever. Many of us are so addicted by the thought of revenge that we clearly forget how awful suffering really is, and are perfectly willing to hurt or kill people who are brothers, sisters, children, parents, and members of entire communities whose suffering will be increased. Long-standing conflicts are notoriously difficult to resolve, and often take a concerted effort for peace and reconciliation, such as the transition of power from Apartheid South Africa to democracy, or the peace process in Northern Ireland to end their time of ‘Troubles’. How awful do our troubles have to get before we are completely fed up with conflict and demand a return to common decency?
Another reason why it is difficult to foster empathy is our human tendency to divide everyone everyone into categories and labels — seeing others not as people, but as labels like ‘conservative’ , ’liberal’, ‘rich’, ‘poor’, ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘illegal immigrant’, ‘criminal’, ‘infidel’, etc. We think that categories and labels are necessary, but they ultimately are just more illusions, creating more boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and making it tougher to really see each other for who we are, or to recognize everyone’s basic rights. The only way to break down these illusory walls is to really see and interact with people outside our own small group, coming to understand them as they really are, not as our assumptions and prejudices make them appear to be.
Since helping others also benefits us, as discussed above, it can make sense to practice ‘selfish altruism’ — doing good things for others, not because we’re primarily motivated by empathy, but because we feel good as a result. That’s a perfectly fine way to start having an interest in helping others, though hopefully at some point it will blossom into valuing empathy and altruism for their own sake.
If we want to grow our capacity for empathy, one tool from the system of Reiki is to focus on the precepts, especially the fifth precept “Be compassionate to ourselves and others”, which is closely related to empathy. We can repeat the precepts whenever needed during the day, either in English or in Japanese. Or, we can meditate on the relevant precept, gently focusing on it while remaining open to whatever thoughts, images, or associations may arise.
Another exercise that can help us grow our empathy could be called "The Circle of Empathy". We would start by thinking of whoever we feel the most empathy or love towards, such as towards our spouse or significant other, close family members, or ourselves. Then, we can broaden our ‘circle of empathy’ towards a wider set of people, like our entire family, then our entire city, state, country, then the world. Or, we can practice expanding our circle of empathy to people we find it difficult to empathize with, such as people we don’t like, disagree with, hate, or feel no connection with. If we don’t feel comfortable empathizing with someone, we don’t have to — whatever we’re comfortable doing is completely fine.
Another way to grow our empathy is to decide which is more important to us: focusing only on our own needs, or on helping others (as discussed in The Law of One, aka the Ra Material, though I don’t agree with all other claims made in that book). If we care about helping others, that doesn’t mean we have to neglect our own needs, of course — we can be most effective at helping others if our own essential needs are taken care of. Once we decide that we care deeply about helping others, though, and perhaps formalize that decision with something like the Bodhisattva vow (to liberate all sentient beings), that decision can help galvanize our resolve, giving us determination to be as effective as possible at helping others.
An exercise that can help us grow our empathy is to start by thinking of whoever we feel the most empathy or love towards, such as towards our spouse or significant other, close family members, or ourselves. Then, we can broaden our ‘circle of empathy’ towards a wider set of people, like our entire family, then our entire city, state, country, then the world. Or, we can practice expanding our circle of empathy to people we find it difficult to empathize with, such as people we don’t like, disagree with, hate, or feel no connection with. If we don’t feel comfortable empathizing with someone, we don’t have to — whatever we’re comfortable doing is completely fine.
And, when we talk about having empathy for others, let’s remember that doesn’t mean we have to blindly agree with everyone, or put up with any kind of behavior whatsoever. No one is suggesting that we have to just hold hands, sing kumbaya, and avoid conflict at all costs. There are always going to be disagreements, but there are ways to handle disagreements while still being civil with each other, and treating each other as people. Conflicts will still arise, but if we recognize each others’ humanity and basic rights, conflicts don’t have to be so toxic, destructive, and widespread. And, if there’s behavior we really can’t tolerate, it’s in our own best interest to try not to explode in anger, but to address the situation as effectively as we can, without letting our emotions cloud our judgment. If we recognize that we’re all human, and all make mistakes in this extremely difficult world, it makes it easier to not see the other as a monster, and find ways to resolve the situation in everyone’s best interest.
It’s time for us to grow up already, for each of us individually, and for our entire world globally. No matter how conscious or empathic we might already be, let’s multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, or a million.
We just can't stand to keep going with the same path that we have so far, always focusing on me first, always thinking that we somehow have more of a right to health, safety, and happiness than other people. Let’s start rectifying this awful crisis of empathy right now, today. If somebody’s suffering, let’s help them. It doesn’t mean we have to completely ignore our own needs, but fundamentally we’re stronger, we can all build each other up more when everybody’s doing okay.
Empathy and compassion naturally arise whenever we truly see the suffering that other people are going through, and understand that we all fundamentally want the same things — to be healthy, happy, free of suffering, free to live as we choose to, and to try to thrive in this challenging world. So, let’s not cover our eyes and ears, and try to block out the huge amount of suffering in the world. It doesn’t do any good if we get overwhelmed, so we should only open as much as we feel comfortable, but the system of Reiki gives us a lot of tools to ground ourselves, balance ourselves, not get overwhelmed by fear, anger, or anxiety. When we’re connected with our whole selves, there is nothing we can’t handle.
Once and for all, let’s leave behind this antiquated mode of toxic conflict between groups, tribes, races, and nations, as relics of our long, dark, feudal past. We’re better than that, and we are so much stronger when we work together to build everyone up, rather than constantly tearing each other down.
Although there is a crisis of empathy, fortunately it is a completely renewable resource. Every single one of us is capable of producing more empathy, every single day. Why not get started today?
If anyone has any thoughts or questions, please let me know.
Peace and love.