Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Harsh Realities about Empathy in 21st Century America

An acquaintance of mine recently expressed his concern at a study that showed empathy among American college students to have dropped by 40% since the mid 1970s. He asked for my opinion. I said:

I can only speak about what I see happening in the United States because that is where I live. I believe the world is becoming a less empathetic, even meaner place. Just look at how we entertain ourselves aside from the Internet. Television has become increasingly disturbing, to the point that I have had my cable disconnected and no longer turn on that particular glowing rectangular box. Our young people have grown up with a decade of war under their belts, and it's just not that unusual any more...it's a way of life. 

I was born and reared in the Midwest, and as an adult have lived on the West Coast, the Southeast Coast, and in the American Southwest. I even lived in Australia. Now, I have returned to my Midwest roots, and I'm happy to be looking out the window right now at a glistening snowscape. I returned less than a year ago, after spending 6 years in the Phoenix, Arizona area.

Phoenix was not at all the enlightened society for which I had hoped. I found it to be, in a word, mean. I could never discern if people were angry because of the hot weather, or if it had something to do with group-think, or if it was just because the Phoenix area is populated primarily with people who are from "someplace else." I do know this: Maricopa County, Arizona is one boiling hotbed of anger and resentment. I came to call the local TV newscast Fear and Loathing in the Valley of the Sun. Now, understand this: Fear and Loathing is business as usual for the folks in Maricopa County. It's a way of life. You take any young person, and saturate their mind with enough violence and hate, this way of thinking becomes completely normal to them. In fact, it has to become their personal norm, because otherwise they would find themselves spiraling downward into a generation-wide depression from which they would not be able to climb.

I was recently engaged in a discussion regarding the need for some type of healthcare coverage in the US that would ensure all citizens have a right to and are able to afford at least the most basic care, including things like treatment for chronic illness. My partner in this discussion was a young man who is near 30 years old. He goes to my church. He is dead-set against any type of national healthcare plan. I asked him what I should do if were ever to lose insurance coverage due to job loss or other unforeseen circumstances. He replied that I could die, but that I would be in a better place.

Seriously...I do believe in the Lord, and Heaven, but I'm in no hurry to rush to the end. If that were a popular point of view, we would see more cases of mass suicide i.e. Jonestown. Other young people I have talked to, in general, about this gap in the American social system seem to think that if a person has no insurance, they can just go to the Emergency Room to be treated. Show me an Emergency Room that will diagnose and treat something like, oh, cancer, and I'll show you an honest to goodness jackalope. The truth is: Neither exists in reality. 

Also...it is most definitely not loving nor is it an empathetic stance to tell someone to die simply because they have no healthcare coverage. 

If you're worried about the capacity for empathy of future generations:
  • Turn off the television and get the magazines out of your personal dwelling.
  • Take your kids to volunteer at a local home for the aged, senior citizens center, homeless shelter, or hospital.
  • Teach your grandkids how to care for other living creature, such as a bird, a hamster, a cat, or a dog...or even a houseplant.
Above all, teach through your own actions:
  • When someone comes up and asks you for a dollar, don't judge; if you have the dollar, pass it on.
  • If you notice someone at the theater, the mall, or the restaurant waiting area who looks lonely or sick, ask them how they're doing, or if they need anything (and mean it).
  • If another driver pulls out in front of you or cuts you off in traffic, don't lose your temper, especially in front of your kid or grandkid: It's not the end of the world!!

Don't forget the so-called universal Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. Take it a step further, and love others the way you want to be loved. Brotherly love, compassion...These are not words to describe emotion--they are words to describe action. Take action, and make a difference in the future.