Empathy. It seems that that the experience of this basic human emotion is on the decline among young people. In my recent lament about the deaths among a number of youths I wondered what happened to basic empathy and regard for our kin. Luckily, it seems to be a shared concern. To wit, an article in today’s paper edition of Boston Globe, "Empathy is so yesterday" tackles the social science on the subject (Keith O’Brien, Oct 17, 2010). Today’s youth, he asserts, may be more aware of one another’s whereabouts, but less likely to show genuine concern for others. This might be in part a consequence of incessant news bites, tragedy upon tragedy, and hurricane after tsunami after terror attacks. After all, we have to protect ourselves from the assault of such relentless, troubling communications. (I stopped watching TV news after having children, simply to avoid a night of fretful sleep and anxiety over “what ifs.”)
But what of this lack of empathy? Is empathy a worn out past-time dismissed by a generation of hyperspeaking tech freaks and self-involved capitalists? One might think so after seeing The Social Network. (Just sayin’.) There are the obvious societal culprits including the advent of the World Wide Web and the rapid dependence on technology, gadgets and instant messaging in one decade – for better and for worse. It's worth reflecting on the potential fall out for real human connection. O’Brien does a little digging into the definition of empathy. (In fact, it's a relatively new 19th century term derived from the German word, Einfuehling – irony notwithstanding). He also summarizes some fascinating research. The studies are relatively few (apparently only 72 to date) and the results are largely culled from written role play scenarios and self-reports with college students. But here’s the upshot: Since about 2000, there has been a “sudden” drop in two areas of empathy: Perspective taking (cognitive empathy) and empathic concern (emotional empathy). In fact, the drop in empathy concern, the physiological or felt experience of another's situation, has declined by 48% between 1979 and 2009, according to the Globe article.
This does not bode well for our young people. O’Brien points out, via interviews with researchers, that it is not the emotional capacity that may be lacking – after all, babies are born with an innate sense of empathy and feeling another’s distress cry – but that the context of modern life has shifted dramatically. He mentions the high divorce rate and media consumption as two possible influencers, as well as recessions, climate change, and other global situations that leave many feeling powerless. But we needn't feel this way.
I spent part of one evening this weekend at a small candle light march in Mattapan, at Morningstar Baptist Church, to pay respect to four people slain just a few weeks ago. I attended this intimate gathering with a group of teens from my town at a local parish, just one mile away. There is an invisible line between our two communities – and there exists, quite frankly, an apartheid. And it is to the credit of the two youth groups – and the ministers – that this vigil took place.
In the cold drizzle of an October evening, neighbors, black and white, walked together in song. In the shadows of worn three-decker buildings, past barking dogs behind chain-linked fences, and among the sputtering candle flames, these young people could imagine – for a moment at least – the last agonizing footsteps of the victims. I think it changed them in some small way, if not great. How could it not? Huddled we were in collective grief at a sidewalk shrine. In person. Together. Strangers. Leaning into each other, lighting and relighting each other's candles, singing, whispering, praying and feeling. It was but a short moment in the scheme of our lives, but bodily felt. And it is in such communal moments that truly, deep in my heart, I believe we shall overcome… someday.
Mindful Monday #8