Is empathy overrated?

Is empathy a blessing or a curse? The answer should be obvious, but sometimes I don’t know. Let me rethink/rephrase that: it’s a curse when most people don’t have it. It would be a blessing if everyone did have it. Can we teach it in schools?

The other night I watched Argo. Have you seen it? It’s intense. From the beginning I was a nervous wreck. But not only was I deeply affected by the plight of the six American individuals who were attempting to exfiltrate Iran, but by the chaotic opening scenes in which a voiceover gave a summary of the political and social landscape in Iran. I get lost in my daily routine of work, house, kids, repeat and every now and again I’m jolted back to the reality that millions of people around the world face every day. Poverty, starvation, humiliation, injury, death, loneliness, and worse. It affects me deeply not only because every mother around the world loves her child in the same way, but because I don’t know what to do about it. Feeling isn’t enough — these people need action.

I don’t watch the news because I find it so upsetting. Am I really better off knowing the horrors that people inflict on each other, and for what? An Eastern healer recently told me that I’m oversensitive. I feel too much. I need to let go of things. I remember watching footage of the Gulf War in the early ’90s while sitting around the dinner table with my family and being unable to halt the flood of tears. My parents thought I was being ridiculous. But all I could think about were all those lives being affected. The people in Iraq. The families of the soldiers going off to fight. I didn’t give two shits about the political ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. All I could think about were the millions of people, families, social structures that were being affected and/or obliterated for no good reason.

Yesterday while washing broccoli collected from my Dad’s garden I cried for the kids in detention centres in and around Australia. Triple J’s Hack reporters were outlining cases of children and teenagers who were self-harming or contemplating suicide. I listened to the political pros and cons of this scheme and that, but front and centre of my mind was: kids are depressed, self-harming and attempting suicide. How can that not be the focus of the solution?

Empathy often feels like a curse for me. Can’t I just concentrate on my own life and happiness and forget about the plight of people I don’t know? But then I think that if everyone felt the same as me, or more like me, then that would be the starting point from which to solve the problems that affect people. How would I feel if I were in my enemy/business rival/homeless person’s shoes?

How can we teach empathy?



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