The Time for Empathy Is Now

The week of July 4th has been one of celebration of our country’s independence, but also one of sorrow following the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas, Texas police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol (a Michigan native), Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. 

These events are on the heels of the mass shooting in June, killing 49 individuals and wounding 53 others inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was both the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in U.S. history, as well as the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Events such as this also lead to discussions in the course of therapy. Clients, both young and old, have had feelings about what is going on and attempt to process it. There are many times on the news where individuals are labeled as “mentally ill” which then gives an impression to the public that individuals with mental illness are all violent. This is simply not the case. In fact, several studies including one from Vanderbilt University in 2015, states that less than 5% of individuals with mental illness engage in violent behavior. When we label people, it becomes an easy way for us to explain why something has happened.

A word that has been brought up during conversations this week is the concept of empathy. There is concern about the apparent decline of empathy in society today.  A study published by the University of Michigan in 2010 found that college students today are showing a 40% decline in empathy than college students in the 1970s. But what does empathy really mean?

Empathy is not the same as sympathy.  Empathy is understanding how another person feels or putting yourself in their shoes.  Sympathy is recognizing another’s person’s problem and providing them comfort, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it. There are 2 parts to empathy; the cognitive part and the emotional part. The cognitive part makes us try to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings. The emotional part makes us react to another person’s thoughts and feelings and respond appropriately to what they are feeling. You have to have both to equal empathy. Remember when your mom or dad said, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” or the Golden Rule, treating others as one would wish to be treated?

What is causing this decline in empathy? Some will say social media has caused people to say whatever they want to say behind the courage of their computer screens. Some will say that it is the reality show culture of competing to be the best. Some will say it is the fear of anything or anyone that is different from ourselves. The truth is that there is no one simple answer to this question. 

One thing is clear though….in order to heal, there has to be a growth in empathy. We can celebrate our independence and freedom, but still care about our fellow man. Kindness does not make one weak. Courage does not always roar. I was reminded of a great quote by Mahatma Gandhi in watching a story on the news this week and it goes like this……”An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”. If each of us can be empathetic to those around us, and show compassion whenever and wherever we can, the hope is that we will all finally be able to see.

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