“The world doesn’t just revolve around you. There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit.” Barack Obama
A friend once told me that empathy, unless acted upon is as useful as a chocolate teapot. She was 15 when she said this; I was 15 when I heard this; perhaps I did not realise the wisdom of those words then, but now with all the experiences that life has handed me down, I believe it is the mother-lode of all sayings.
There is no doubt that empathy is one of the highest forms of virtue; a beautiful emotion to behold; perhaps one of the inherent components of humanity. Some would say it is what keeps the world afloat. Then comes the million dollar question – shouldn’t the world be a better place with this key virtue in existence?
So here I am struggling to put on paper the conflicted emotions that run through me while I keep debating within myself how useful is this emotion in actuality. Perhaps in my case, it is an imagined case of survivor-guilt but then deep down I know it is not guilt, but more of shame when I take stock of what is happening around us and our reactions to it.
The world around us is plagued by some kind of disaster or the other – if not natural, then man-made. Just in the short period of a few weeks, we have seen almost everything; deranged bombings, building collapses, civil war casualties, plant explosions and nature’s fury.
Lives have been snuffed out in the blink of an eye. One minute these people were living, breathing like you and me, perhaps even living their lives to the fullest and yet today they are nothing but memories that only matter to their nearest and dearest ones. To the rest of the world, they are mere statistics of rather unfortunate events; a mere blip on the radar of the living. So much for all the New Age writing about butterfly flapping its wings!! In reality, Boston bombing – a blip on the radar; earthquake in China – another blip on the radar and the blips sadly continue.
Of course, we mourned, but to what use? With the existence of this rather abundant virtue called empathy, we steeled ourselves to watch the graphic images, made commiserative clicking sounds, tweeted incessantly, paid homage to the dead and then continued on our own plodding journey of life. Some amongst us, perhaps the most generous and the noblest would have gone the extra mile, organised fundraisers or rushed to the affected zones, volunteering in any kind of capacity possible.
But the majority of us, turning a blind eye to the blessings in our lives, would have returned to our own insular worlds driven by egocentric emotions that would out beat empathy any given day.
I am no exception. While someone out there was losing the battle between living and dying and having their choices stripped away cruelly, I was getting worked up that I wasn’t been given options with my minor medical procedure. While someone’s life expectancy was drastically shortened, I was kicking a furore over the duration of my swimming class. Long story short, while people were dying, I was taking my life for granted, frittering away my emotions on rather petty issues.
How easy it is to lock ourselves in our own little dramas and blow our superficial and insignificant issues into Herculean proportions? This is what my whinge is about and perhaps my guilt too.
We may be empathetic to what is happening around us, but we do not seem to learn any valuable lessons from it. Our empathy seems to be short-lived and once the moment is past, we seem to have very selective memory about it and maybe even resurrect our emotional barriers again.
Why can’t we possibly learn from the happenings around us; perhaps use our instinctive emotion not just to feel and forget but reach out a little from our blinkered worlds. Perhaps all we need is a healthy dose of perspective which might do the trick and teach us to value the people and the blessings in our lives, maybe even treasure our lives and others’ as we see the ones around us, perhaps more deserving than us, losing theirs, for no fault of theirs!!
I will refrain from regurgitating well-intentioned but overused clichés about the brevity or fragility of our lives; however the next time we are tempted to throw a tantrum, or work ourselves into a rage over something petty, or wallow in self-pity, or refuse to be magnanimous and forgive others, it is our cue to don on our empathy hat and see the world without our blinkers and barriers.
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