Empathy is a person’s ability to identify with and understand the situation and feelings of another. By identifying with someone else who is experiencing a difficult situation, one who is empathetic is more able to realize the needs and hopes of the other person while also utilizing the perspective of the other to form their own opinions and question the justness of the situation. It is important to be able to show empathy, in both personal and professional relationships. We must all work to train ourselves to better understand those around us; to live together with the constant of changing differences and strive for happiness. Relationships are built around the ability to understand and feel the emotional states of others around us, and it helps those who feel depressed and grief stricken as though they aren’t alone. Empathy requires us to put ourselves aside and let others be the focus. The ability to empathize is an excellent attribute to have when attempting to understand the perspectives of other people, but, if empathy fails to motivate, does it become a self-centered endeavor that is akin to telling yourself, ”I feel badly for them, but thank goodness it is not me”? Is it difficult for you to understand how others feel? Do you ask yourself what you would do if it was you experiencing the same difficulties of another person? When empathetic to what others are going through, what is the most likely thing to spur you to act? When you are able to imagine “walking a mile in their shoes,” does it provoke you to provide assistance? Do you feel better about yourself when you help others? If not, how would you feel if it was you in need of assistance and others merely ignored or slighted your problems and needs? How much credence do you give to the emotions of others? Are you a warm or cold shoulder to others in times of need? Do you try to act selflessly so as to give others emotional space?
According to the Pacific Standard, a research study on empathy was recently published with unexpected results. Although empathy usually is thought of as a good thing, this study found that “participants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for. . . .” which “occurred in spite of the fact that (a) both were total strangers, and (b) the second person had done absolutely nothing wrong.” In essence, this study has shown that human aggression is linked to empathy/caregiving.
Yet, it is difficult to define empathy negatively. For example, imagine, if you can, a world without empathy. Would we be able to feel appropriately for all the unattended children flocking to our border from Mexico? Would we give one second of thought to the conditions and horrors currently experienced by people in Iraq, Syria, or the Ukraine? Would we not find ourselves indifferent to the poor families that have lost loved ones to bombings and other brutal acts of violence, only to be categorized as collateral damage rather than as human beings? Would the concept of (social) justice fade away to obscurity because we are uninterested in stemming slavery and human trafficking or the violent crime that afflicts our society? Finally, would we have the ability to understand and help our children who are experiencing all the good and bad that our world has to offer while attempting to find their own identities? It is likely that we would be unable to do any of the previous without empathy.
Now, a new challenge to our collective empathy has become apparent. According to the New York Times, West African communities, such as those in Sierra Leone, are being hit hard by Ebola. Many medical providers are becoming overwhelmed by infected patients. Ebola is a disease that can be transmitted by blood, vomit, urine and diarrhea, as well as from sweat, saliva, tears, semen and breast milk. The disease is so horrific and deadly, especially when sanitation lacks, that some Americans fear that we are witnessing the beginning of a pandemic. Of course, the recent news that a Liberian national infected with Ebola was misdiagnosed and mistakenly released by a Texas hospital into the surrounding community for several days as he became sicker does nothing to invalidate those fears.
Then again, there are also people who purposely ignore the suffering and torment that the disease is causing in West Africa. They quickly gloss over the pictures of the young men, women and children bleeding on hospital floors and lying in pools of bodily fluids while they die. Is this merely a way to cope with their fear of Ebola? Or, is it that type of self-centered empathy that merely thanks God that it is not them or their family suffering from it while failing to acknowledge the needs of those who are sick? Certainly, the people living in West Africa need the support of the entire world. This support includes not only aid workers and doctors but also drugs to combat the contagion. The question is whether the world will provide the needed support before Ebola spreads to the majority of Africans and the larger world. In this case, empathy must lead to action because pity and fear will not make the situation better.