THE BLOG

Somewhere Between Empathy and Apathy

It doesn't take much more than a quick glance at the news to conclude that the world is a mess. We are riddled with crises, crippled by corruption, and it seems there is a new heartbreak, horror, or breach of justice to report every day.

We can likely recognize that the acute emotional pain of empathizing with every sorrow and tragedy - a seemingly infinite collection of agonies - would mean inevitable implosion or collapse. We would be rendered catatonic; we're not built to bear such anguish. As some people's stories demonstrate, the plight of one life can be burden enough on its own.

The way our body calluses and toughens skin to protect against further assault of pain is a physical manifestation of what we do mentally and emotionally - whether consciously or not. I suspect that it very quickly melts into the ease of sub-consciousness, becoming peripheral habit - a means of survival we'd rather not think about because that process of detachment is in many ways its own burden.

The currents between our hearts, and the outside world beyond our immediate circle, dam up for the sake of survival. We resolve to live at an arm's length, and so empathy begins to wither; it slowly fades into foreignness.

Thankfully, to sever ties to complete empathy does not automatically result in utter apathy - though it can easily become the first step down that road, unless we resolve to hold our ground somewhere in the middle.

If we allow compassion to be snuffed out altogether, we will fail to survive in an entirely different way. We are plagued by a vast jadedness - a haze over our eyes that must be wiped away so we can once again see in a way that leads us to feel.

This is essential because compassion and empathy are the catalysts for action to induce change. When we entrench ourselves in only a personal emotional survival, at a certain point, we become accomplice to the larger problem(s). We close our eyes to the fire and let others burn because to acknowledge that others are burning - to truly feel the grief in that - is too much for us. But when the stakes are so high and the cost is so great, we must resolve to endure some pain; we have to see the fire so we know to seek water.

To stray too far along the path toward apathy is a dangerous direction to proceed because, as you can likely imagine by the very nature of apathy, there is little motivation to turn around.

Those who maintain consciousness of their descent into detachment are more likely to try to maintain a grasp of their shared humanness by humanizing others - repainting others as people first, strangers second.

The distinction is something like this: when I see a homeless person on the street, I am sympathetic to them, but often only as I avoid eye contact or maintain some underlying skepticism toward the validity of their claims, the authenticity of their struggle. But, if I take the time to see them as a human, as a person with a past and a history, and likely a series of difficult experiences, and disadvantages that I would have struggled with had that been my story - I am far more likely to feel compelled to do something to help - to see homelessness as a problem in dire need of a solution - to see that the suffering of strangers is as grave a situation as the suffering of people I love.

Similarly, if I hear on the news that a young boy was kidnapped, I am viscerally sad; I have my reaction, but then I store the information in some little-visited archive of my mental space devoted to tragedies not immediately affecting me, and therefore, receiving only a small quota of emotional energy. But, if I imagine this boy was my brother - and then imagine, truly, my brother being kidnapped - I feel my heartrate pick up, my eyes well, my stomach drop, and I catch a glimpse of how quickly my heart would break, my life would shatter, and everything that I imagined as meaningful would tumble away, leaving me utterly empty and lost. It's crushing, and in that moment, I feel intense empathy; in that moment, I am heartbroken by the knowledge of how many people have endured such pain, and I am in awe of their ability to survive.

Surely, if those who withstand tragedy can manage to survive, then I can survive the painful pangs of compassion needed to remind me that I bear responsibility as a human.

When we find ourselves drifting toward relative indifference to others' plight, we can revive compassion by contextualizing people's existence within the parameters of what they might mean to someone else - what they might have meant to us, had their lot so happened to have been ours, or a loved one's. In many ways, this contextualizing speaks to the underlying interconnectedness of being human - so much of our emotional investment is defined by our relationships with others.

Ultimately, however, the question remains - how do we combat compassion's dependency on context? How do we strike the elusive balance between empathy and apathy that allows us to survive ourselves while remaining invested in the survival of others? I confess I'm not entirely sure. But I think the discussion is imperative - at the least because it forces us to consciousness. And perhaps if we are aware of the slippery slope of circumstantial empathy and jaded survival, we are more likely to brave the terrifying but crucial terrain of a collective humanity invested collectively in itself.