Empathy

Empathy was always one of those words that my students found confusing.  Was it just like “sympathy,” but you sound smarter saying it– kind of like the word “matriculate?” Empathy was a little like sympathy, I told them, but it was a little bit… more.  If sympathy was seeing someone get hurt and saying, “Aw, that’s too bad,” then empathy was about feeling that person’s pain, seeing the world through their eyes, experiencing what they experienced in their minds.  It sounded so lofty, so special, as if you had some kind of superpower.

Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Empathic Civilization” makes it clear that empathy is an essential skill for the 21st century.  It’s something you may have heard in other places, too– Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence got the ball rolling with the idea that after a long time of prioritizing skills like analytical and computational abilities, orderliness, and linear thinking, technology had gotten to the point where it would always be better than our human brains at these such abilities.  The internet emerged, computational power continued to explode according to Moore’s Law, and a computer beat Gary Kasparov at chess.  We were forced to– and are still forced to– fall back on what I call our sense of “human pride”– the things we can do that a computer can never probably won’t ever be able to do– empathize with someone, break existing rules in the name of creativity, and imagine things that never were, for starters.  Human pride is one of those ideas that escapes definition– it’s hard to articulate, but we know it when we see it.

Rifkin says that empathizing will be an essential ability in the coming years, and I agree.  The confluence of extraordinary technologies and the forces of globalization has made worldwide communication cheap and easy.  This means that we’re running into people who are very different than us, more than ever before.  Just a hundred years ago, it would be easy to go your whole life and never meet or talk to anyone from another country.  Today, kindergartners  can Skype with  counterparts in Argentina and practice each other’s language.  We’ll run into a lot of people who are very different than us in our lifetimes.  Empathy lets us do what’s most important– find the ways in which we’re all very much the same.

Rifkin tells listeners that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the rest of the social media rock stars will increase empathy throughout the world– the plight of those in distress broadcast over these communication networks means more attention, more discussion, more action.  But I caution that broadcasting the troubles of the world over instantaneous, pervasive outlets  might do the opposite– desensitize us, distance us, keep problems relegated to a click of the mouse.  The more we’re exposed to something, the more we habituate to it.  If you had shown people across the world images from World War I as it was happening, they would have been horrified more than they ever thought possible.  Now, we can watch footage from battle– real battle– in Afghanistan on Youtube, and not miss a bite of our sandwich.  If every tragedy to befall the world comes through on our iPhones and Droids, it will take a tsunami-sized catastrophe to get our attention.

Either way, cultivating empathy in our students is essential for a society to be able to keep being human when technology runs so much of our lives.  We have to keep our focus on technology as a tool to serve our humanity, not the other way around.  If we can teach students to remember the meaning of a living thing, and to be able to mentally put themselves in someone else’s place– to really see, hear, feel, and think like they do– we will be giving them a skill that will helped them live a happier, more human life.  Perhaps that will be the best definition of human pride.

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