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[Chalice] Connected? [Chalice]
Empathy in the 21st Century

Presented February 14, 2010, by Susan Morrison Hebble, PhD

Opening Words:

"The rapprochement of peoples is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared and condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world."
-J. William Fullbright

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."
-Albert Einstein

The Talk:

One grey snowy morning a few weeks ago, I opened my e-mail and found yet another of those inflammatory anti-Muslim messages - this one implored readers to "adamantly and vocally BOYCOTT" the USPS stamps honoring Muslim holidays because the stamps, according to the e-mail, "would be a slap in the face to all those Americans who died at the hands of those whom this stamp is honoring." The subject-line of this e-mail claims that "Obama is back honoring his Muslim brotherhood again!" Now, there are SO many things wrong with this message that we could spend the entire hour discussing it. But what stood out for me, what got under my skin like a bad rash, was the hatred, the vitriol, of the e-mail. And I couldn't help imagine how a Muslim American, or any other minority for that matter, might feel if this e-mail landed in her inbox. The rest of the day, that e-mail festered in my mind. I couldn't shake it; couldn't get my mind around how distressed it made me feel.

The next day, that rash - that intellectual and spiritual irritation - was aggravated when Pat Robertson opened his mouth. As I'm sure many of you heard, Robertson suggested that the earthquake in Haiti was brought on by the Haitian people, who once "got together" and "made a pact with the Devil" to get free from French rule in the 18th Century. And they've been paying for it ever since, Robertson asserts. I found it impossible to reconcile Robertson's words with the images of men, women, and children physically and emotionally crushed by the earthquake. Now, Robertson has a storied history of this sort of reaction to unimaginable crises - he claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God's way of punishing our country for its many sins. For someone whose spirituality is founded in liberal humanism, we often find it easy to dismiss such claims as ridiculous or irrelevant. But the fact is that such talk is not only offensive but also dangerous because it reinforces a duplicitous relationship between people, between cultures. It subverts compassion and cooperation for pity and condescension.

These two encounters might seem disparate, but I don't think they are, for I see them as reflective of a problem that has been nagging at me for some time. In fact, I realize this problem is at the core of two previous talks I've given from this pulpit - one on the art of the apology, the other on the essence of forgiveness. Maybe today, a day for celebrating love, we're coming full circle.

Culturally, spiritually, and politically we seem to be losing our connection with one another, we seem less willing and able to empathize. Communications like that e-mail and the Pat Robertson comment serve primarily to widen the gap between "us" and "them," to objectify the "other, and ultimately to dismiss the essential common humanity that we all share. Sure, a sort of kneejerk reaction to a crisis, a falling back on our own religious or cultural beliefs in the face of extraordinary fear and tragedy may be satisfying or soothing at first. But without empathy, we cannot have real understanding, nor can we, therefore, move forward.

Defining empathy is deceptively simple. Atticus Finch puts it most plainly and poignantly in the great American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Sometimes doing so is painful, even unimaginable, but considering things from the other's point of view may be the most productive and responsible thing we can do. For empathy can lay the foundation for compassion, for love, and, potentially, for peace.

Barack Obama has referred to the problem that nags at me in dozens of speeches and writings as a national issue. He calls it an "empathy deficit," our weakening "ability to see the world through those who are different from us." Significantly, many psychologists, sociologists, and religious leaders have noted the lack of empathy, too, in our culture. Daniel Goleman, respected author of Emotional Intelligence (1995) writes in his follow up book, Social Intelligence (2006) that "[t]oday, just as science reveals how crucially important nourishing relationships are, human connections seem increasingly under siege" (Goleman). That idea is also explored in philosophy professor J.D. Trout's 2009 book entitled The Empathy Gap, and a 2007 Washington Post article goes so far as to define the problem as EDD - Empathy Deficit Disorder, "a pervasive but overlooked condition with profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society . . . . a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes-even hatred-among groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, or ways of life" (LaBier).

Now let's admit it - we're probably tempted to think that I'm talking about faults of other people - close-minded people, selfish or greedy people, ignorant people. But the harsh reality is that each of us is responsible to varying degrees for this Empathy Deficit. What's really important, too, is that we're raising kids in , as Obama described it, "a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses." But aren't we the creators and keepers of our culture?

A day or two after the e-mail experience, some friends and I were chatting about the challenges of raising teenagers. One friend referred to something she'd heard child psychologist Barbara Coloroso say. Coloroso has written several highly regarded books on bullying; a Colorado resident, she was called in to help in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings; and she has recently published a book on the genocide in Rwanda, identifying genocide as "an extreme form of bullying" (Dorrell). But what dominated our conversation around the table at Starbucks that day was Coloroso's assertion that recent studies show that the emerging generation - our teens and pre-teens - are a generation seriously lacking empathy. She's talking about our kids; she's talking about our future leaders.

My friends and I danced around several theories for this teen and 'tween empathy deficit. Isn't this, after all, the most driven and socially aware generation ever? One thought was that kids get conflicting messages from us about altruism and competition: we seem to want our kids to excel at everything, to be hyper-involved, and for their efforts, minimal or extreme, everybody gets a prize! As a result, a lot of kids expect to win something, anything, just for signing on. Barbara Coloroso also condemned this approach of rewarding kids for every little thing. We're feeding a sense of narcissism and reinforcing materialism and the value of collecting stuff for the sake of collecting stuff. (This is not a new idea. In the Greed Happy 1980s, a popular bumper sticker claimed "He who dies with the most toys, wins.") But when the allure of winning a prize motivates student participation in school fundraisers, are we teaching altruism or materialism? When we give a kid a trophy for putting on her soccer cleats and shin guards, are we rewarding accomplishment or avoiding criticism?

They may not be able to articulate it, but kids are pretty aware of the messages we're really sending. When everyone gets a prize, the value of the thing done is diminished and the lessons of empathy are lost: kids are less likely to experience the feelings of achievement for the sake of achievement or the disappointment of falling short of a goal, nor will they enjoy the pleasure of being helpful just for the sake of being helpful. The experience of doing a thing becomes sort of attenuated, generic. Therefore kids are less likely to be inspired to try harder at a task or to share-and empathize with-someone else's glory of victory or agony of defeat.

Our coffee house conversation turned, as you knew it would, to the trends that seem to have most profoundly changed how we interact: the internet and the cell phone. Ah, technology: the source of humankind's greatest and most devastating achievements. Of course, ours is not the first generation to wrestle with this paradox. Great thinkers have simultaneously exulted over and warned against technology for generations! At the turn of the last century, a hundred or more years ago, political and cultural critics lamented that the industrial revolution may have been a boon for the middle class (may, actually, have created a middle class), but they feared that the cost would be a loss in spirituality, in humanity, and in our connection to nature. Indeed, with each technological achievement, we seem implicitly to chip away at some of our finest virtues, valuing instead appearances over substance, instant gratification over thoughtful consideration, and dazzling "apps" over human interaction.

Especially now, with advances in technological communication occurring at a staggering rate, we find ourselves seduced by the latest, newest, most technological technology. Never has technology been so pervasive, so available, so democratic. Whether we're talking about a big screen TV or a cell phone, an i-pod or skype, we want it! And kids really really want it! And they get it! A Chicago Tribune cover story published a day before my Starbucks roundtable discussion summarized a Kaiser Family Foundation report on children and media use. The latest report concludes that teens and tweens use media-TV, video games, computers, i-pods, cell phones-an average of 53 hours a week. 53 hours!!! That's 7 hours and 38 minutes a day. When we hear these numbers, we can't help but panic a bit.

Now, Bill Gates (of course) lauds the ability of the computer to "feed our curiosity and inventiveness -to help us solve problems that even the smartest people couldn't solve on their own" (Gates). And computer technology does provide all kinds of extraordinary opportunities for the curious, the creative, and the social.

But critics also suggest that this media overkill feeds our "culture of instant gratification and narcissism" even though most users insist that they are more "connected" than ever before (Alang). With the advent of social networking sites, like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, AIM, and Twitter, 'tweens, teens, and adults have become prolific online communicators, yet they sacrifice face time for screen time. Media observers warn that such social network sites provide primarily superficial interaction and ultimately serve as a sort of self-advertisement. Indeed, as one media pundit describes it, "each of us can create our own personal media walled garden that surrounds us with comforting, confirming information, and utterly shuts out anything that conflicts with our world view'" (Saffo qtd in Manney).

Much interaction occurs from a distance - maybe just a few houses away - rather than face to face. In spite of the convenience and efficiency of communicating via computer or text (rarely do kids actually talk on the cell phones anymore), such communication provides only a fraction of real interactive experience - what about the subtleties of tone of voice, the implicit messages of body language, the intimacy of looking someone in the eye, the shared experience of place and time? Notably, one of the startling trends of electronic communication is that many young people begin and end romantic relationships through cyber-space. The Dear John letter has been replaced by the text message - all lower case and abbreviated: i dont wnt 2 c u anymore. Such one-sided, impersonal communication discourages empathy and inflates a sense of self-importance.

One of the most disturbing things I discovered on-line was a reaction to a tragedy in Western Springs, where I live. One day last year, a young woman was killed at our commuter train stop. She was standing just at the edge of the yellow safety line on the platform, but the suction created by a passing express train pulled the young woman from the platform, killing her instantly. As I searched the internet to find information about the accident, I stumbled on a message board forum, where anyone can post comments about current news stories. Not one but several posters placed the blame for the accident on the young woman herself, saying that anyone "idiot enough" to stand too close to the tracks "deserves what she got." "Deserves what she got." I suspect that those posting the comments would not share these thoughts aloud to the victim's grieving family and friends, but they somehow had no hesitation to express themselves so inhumanely on-line.

And this isn't an extreme example of hurtful communication, for variations of such insensitivity litter cyber space. And we're back to Barbara Coloroso, who works adamantly to inform parents and educators about the perils not only of bullying but of cyber-bullying, a convenient and (seemingly) anonymous way for 'tweens and teens to torment one another, often with disastrous results. And I see that diatribe against the Muslim holiday stamps to be a form of cyber bullying. Feelings are, after all, feelings, whether conveyed online or in person. But the electronic distance often lulls us into thinking otherwise.

Perhaps communication and entertainment technologies provide for us a sort of cocoon, a protective or even defensive layer between our selves and others. But at what cost? Cashiers at my local grocery store have told me that their interactions with customers are increasingly impersonal as more and more people check out while tuning into their i-pods or talking on their cell phones. One cashier told me she often feels as if she's treated as a machine, an "it" by customers (mostly adults), who barely acknowledge that she's there. Her customary warm greeting is often ignored or returned with a perfunctory grunt of acknowledgment, as the customers prioritize the phone call or tune over immediate face-to-face human interaction.

Technology has also dramatically affected how we entertain and inform ourselves as well. We select news programs, TV shows, movies, books, and music that reinforce instead of challenge our sense of the world. .As media critic PJ Manney asserts, many teens, as well as adults, visit media sites and watch programs that "[increase] their reliance on their peer group values and not on alternative values that might challenge their belief systems and open them up to a world they have yet to experience. . . . They search for validation in self-reflection, and, in the hall of mirrors that can be the Internet, only their mirrored peers reflect back at them" (Manney). If you shop at, the site will recognize you and automatically recommend books consistent in style and, perhaps, ideology with those you've bought in the past. You no longer have the messy task of browsing through stacks of books that may or may not interest you. I happen to love that messy task! In fact, the books I've stumbled while looking for something else have been my happiest finds!

The same goes for movies and television. With dozens (if not hundreds) of channels from which to choose, we can watch exactly what we think we want to see ad nauseum. Kids can see 24 hours of Disney programming, for instance; teens can watch multiple episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and a sports nut might watch hour upon hour via one of the three (or more) ESPN channels. Not to go all sentimental on you, but I kind of miss the good old days when we had limited television choices-there was something very special about anticipating the once-a-year showing of The Wizard of Oz. (I distinctly remember having a picnic dinner on the living room floor and watching the movie as a family. I had to huddle next to my mom during the terrifying flying monkey scene.) And numerous times I settled for an old black and white movie when "nothing else was on", only to find myself immersed in one of the great classics-"Casablanca," or "Citizen Kane," or "The Philadelphia Story." Today's youth, and perhaps adults, would probably cruise right past those titles in search of something more contemporary, more reflective of their own experience or immediate interests. A major consequence of so much choice is, well, so much choice. And the result, then, can be a fragmentation of society - each of us in our own little bubble of experience, unable or unwilling to venture beyond that thin film of difference, that cocoon of isolation.

In one of his many insightful essays of the late 20th century, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Daniel Boorstin posits that technological developments are inevitable and often admirable, but the cost is both a disconnection between people and a dulling of intellect. "Technology is so much fun, " he famously said, "but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge." Boorstin did not live to experience the internet, a fog machine extraordinaire!

But perhaps a balance between the "fog of information" and the potential for "creativity and imaginative" problem-solving to which Bill Gates referred is possible. Perhaps technology can serve to spread empathy and compassion, just as effectively it is used to spread the hatred and ignorance of that e-mail and Pat Robertson's comments. And I think we're beginning to see a shift. The same researchers who warn that violent video games are an aggressive form of "anti-empathy' technology" suggest that "video games are coming of age," pointing to a new genre of games that encourage players to consider complex world problems (Manney). For instance, the game Darfur is Dying challenges players to help villagers overcome realistic difficult situations by putting the player the position - in the metaphorical shoes - of the people in that troubled nation. Also encouraging is the fact that educators are beginning to work with technology, especially the internet, rather than against it. Colleges use social networking sites to communicate with prospective and admitted students; and grade and high schools are incorporating the World Wide Web in the classroom, with programs like CyberBridges to introduce students to distant cultures and to help students understand the perils of insensitivity.

And, whether the motivation is primarily altruistic or commercial, many corporations are adopting social awareness and even empathy in promotional campaigns. The skin care company, Dove, established the "Campaign for Real Beauty", which provides on-line and local programs promoting self esteem in young girls; and Pepsi made history by NOT advertising on TV during the Super Bowl, focusing instead on its online Refresh Everything Project, which promises to fund community improvement ideas submitted and voted on by visitors to its website. The internet also has provided an effective forum for posting vital information about various global crises and tragedies-families of earthquake victims have found their loved ones via the internet, just as Katrina victims were able to use the internet and cell phones to communicate with family members and/or to make arrangements for dealing with their plight. Perhaps we can turn the tables. Instead of technology dehumanizing us, perhaps we can humanize technology, making it a tool of empathy, care, and compassion.

After all, for millennia, human beings have faced such challenges. Evidence of this can be found in the stories and tenets of the world's major religions, each of which promotes some version of The Golden Rule. In Buddhism: "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself." In Judaism: Thou shalt Love thy neighor as thyself." In Hinduism: "One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated." In Shintoism: "Be charitable to all beings, love is the representative of God." In Cofucianism: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." In Islam: "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." In Christianity: "Whatsover ye would that others should do to you, do ye even so to them." Christianity, in fact, instructs us to "love" our "enemies."

This sentiment translates in so many ways throughout history - in music, in art, in poetry, in literature, in film. Through virtually any kind of storytelling, we bear witness to the value of empathy. One of the most famous and remarkable examples of storytelling teaching empathy is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which in the mid-1800s inspired Americans to understand the toll of slavery on individuals. Stowe, Abraham Lincoln once said, was "the little lady who made this big war." As one critic said, "Such was the power of her . . . novel. Empathy and courage won the day where fear, ignorance and injustice previously held sway" (Manney).

Of course, many works of literature honor the value of human connection. Of course, here's To Kill A Mockingbird, which so poignantly illustrates the strength and honor that come from empathy. But also consider West Side Story, one of many modern re-tellings of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The story is about the struggle of groups defined by their mutual hatred, a hatred not unlike that I sensed in the anti-Muslim e-mail I received; but in Tony's death, the Sharks and Jets come together in common grief. Just as Puccini's Madame Butterfly helps opera lovers understand its unlikely heroine's devotion and sacrifice, Citizen Kane teaches us that even the most apparently jaded and self-serving of men beholds the sweet innocence of his own childhood in the end. I think, too, about Academy Award Winner Crash, which skillfully presents the fear, sorrow and fruitlessness of a fragmented society, and Slumdog Millionaire, which takes us into lives so far removed from our own.

What stories move you to put yourselves in someone else's shoes? What stories can we tell our children to help them see the world as others see it, not only as a reflection of themselves?

You see, essentially it's the stories, in whatever form, that remind us that inside some abstract idea-Muslim, Conservative, Patriot, Victim - is an individual with whom we share not only a common humanity, but a common life on this earth in this time. This idea is the cornerstone of the teachings of the Dalai Lama who, in his book The Art of Happiness, stresses the importance of respecting even those whose views we find discordant with our own "because you [too] are still a human being, within the human community. You share that bond. And the human bond is enough to give rise to worth and dignity. That bond can become a source of consolation in the event that you lose everything else." The Dalai Lama speaks of both practical and spiritual importance of empathy in relationships. Even when one is tempted to lash out at the other-whether the sender of that nasty e-mail is compelled to lash out at Muslims everywhere, or whether I am tempted to lash out at him.

Some people think being Unitarian Universalist must be easy. We get to choose what we want to believe, after all. But if you listen closely to our seven principles-we recited them just today-you'll notice that the theme that runs through them begins and ends with the empathy. So on this Valentine's Day, this day that honors love, share yourself with those closest to you, but maybe challenge yourself a bit, too. Try sharing your love with someone completely different-put yourself in someone else's shoes, perhaps the least likely someone else, and see what the world looks like from her point of view. Doing so may just lead to understanding and compassion where you least expected it.

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©2010 Susan Morrison Hebble, PhD

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison, PhD 2010. Connected? Empathy in the 21st Century, /talks/20100214.shtml (accessed August 10, 2020).

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