Empathy is the key to all sorts of things, as it puts our focus not outside ourselves and expands our understanding of human existence. It’s exceptionally important and, I think, is probably the single most important ability we can develop as human beings.
I was thinking the other day about the incredible benefits which have resulted from the rise of the technologically connected world in which we live. While some like to poke at how disconnected from reality and engrossed in our devices we have seemingly become, the reality is that we are more easily connected than ever before. Everyone with a phone or computer access now has a voice which can be heard around the globe. Those who are marginalized, ignored, oppressed can put their point of view in front of the world and be heard.
And that’s great. It should, and in many cases does, promote empathy. It takes far more effort, now that content can reach us from anywhere, to willfully ignore the voices and experiences and presence of others who live different lives than we do. Our technology should make us more aware, and it does.
But there, naturally, another side to the coin.
Everyone who now has a voice which can be heard by the world is now tempted to use it to try and make people see things from their point of view. If the world becomes aware of the suffering of others, we wonder why our suffering isn’t also noticed.
The problem is that you cannot teach or promote empathy towards yourself. It doesn’t work that way. Trying to get other people to understand how you feel isn’t empathy, it’s selfishness. You can only teach or promote empathy by putting the focus on others. Not you. Not those whose empathy needs developing. Someone else entirely. We have to model the behavior, not place ourselves at its focal point.