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Lorraine Devon Wilke Headshot

What the World Needs Now Is... Empathy

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We humans are a competitive bunch. From time immemorial we've found every reason known to man to beat and bludgeon each other in the name of tribes, regions, countries, religions, even political parties, and we don't seem the least bit inclined to stop. It's somehow burned into our DNA to set up stakes and draw lines meant to keep us separate and superior, except, of course, when imperialism raises its uppity head and pushes one group beyond the lines of another to prove "survival of the fittest." This may have worked for the Huns, it had much to do with the assemblage now known as the United States, but when it comes to contemporary culture and the discourse between human beings currently inhabiting our planet, all this line-drawing, head-bludgeoning, chest-puffing aggrandizement is literally beating the hell out of us.

I'm not just talking about the combatants in the Middle East, tribal Africa, Communist China or drug-lorded Mexico. I'm talking about the more mundane crowd right here in our own back yards: the cable pundits, Tea Partiers, talk radio shouters, neighborhood politicians, party opinion leaders, religious zealots, and Americans who seem to think some are more "real" than others. It's an eclectic group that's narrowly focused, blindly competitive and deeply bereft of empathy.

Empathy is defined as the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another person, a necessary component to the ability to feel compassion. Empathy and compassion... they may not be the only things that there's just too little of, but they're surely at the top of the list.

For a moment, let's focus on the more personal aspect of human relations, those exchanges and reactions that exist between people. One on one. The way we treat each other. The way we consider (or don't) each other's viewpoints. The way we fight our battles, leave our comments, debate our issues, get our points across. In our hyper-competitive society, where we are groomed from day one to "be the best," "knock the opponent down," "win the prize," "be right," "get to the top," often at the expense of anyone or anything in our way, the capacity for empathy is highly devalued. Boys who exhibit it are considered pussies. Girls who exude too much are relegated to the girl-track, not tough enough to compete with the boys. Woman with empathy have lots of friends and run a hell of a PTA but don't expect anyone to nominate them for Chairman of the Board. Men... well, men aren't even supposed to consider empathy a part of their emotional palette, much less feel it. It's an emotion not particularly admired in these contentious times, and we, as a society, are suffering for its lack.

There are those who think anyone in need of compassion or help is a freeloader, those who call a government that feels some obligation to its needy socialist, and those who think anyone who is different in any way, shape, form, color, creed, belief system or political party is simply wrong, less. Less of a "real American." Less of a patriot. Less of a God-fearer. Opponents snarl, slam, insult and demean, and it's all done in the name of winning. Being right. Feeling superior.

Examples:

1. A First Lady starts a healthy eating and exercise initiative and instead of everyone getting on board because it's simply a good idea in this obesity-burdened society, women of the opposing party impugn her and it; even going so far as to suggest that more walking has resulted in more pedestrian accidents. Damned if they'll get behind a good idea if it's from the other side!

2. Instead of eschewing political differences to work together to forge an insurance bill that's universal and protective, partisans push and shove and make up idiotic names like "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Bill" as a way to whip up fear and debase opponents. God forbid we should concern ourselves with common folk who aren't even our responsibility.

3. The needs of one group can't possibly be understood by another because that would require a willingness to walk in another's shoes, understand their plight and consider workable solutions to their problems. That's impossible when we're too busy closing our minds to anything except our own bias. Please see the DREAM Act.

4. Ethnic generalities and inflammatory insults are commonplace in a country where Muslim equates terrorist and bigotry and intolerance are accepted and applauded by many, some of whom claim to have the Christian God and the Marines on their side. Just ask Councilwoman Deborah Pauly from Orange County, CA.

5. Political debates, conversations, and campaigns can't possibly include collaboration or a focus on issues, remedies, or solutions because the participants are obligated to lie, cheat and obfuscate in their effort to not just win the argument, but denigrate the opponent. See too many Republicans and most Fox News talking heads.

6. Issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and women's rights continue to be fodder for the screaming and yelling of zealots, racists, and sexists who find it impossible to consider the point and purpose of what drives these issues and makes them important to others. See fist-pumping, placard-carrying protesters everywhere (and don't get me started on the Phelps family).

There are obviously many more examples but these make the point. Intolerance, bigotry, hate, fear -- the summation of all these is lack of empathy. In each and every one of these cases, if the parties involved were to honestly put aside their opinions and beliefs long enough to listen and really consider the "why" behind someone else's, there's no telling how much peace and harmony could be found in the valley.

We may not be conditioned that way. We're imprinted to hold our opinion, shut out our opponent, win at all costs, prove the other guy wrong. But I can hope. Because I do see change. I see Don't Ask Don't Tell get repealed. I see young people plant community gardens and rally in support of their neighbors. I see negative politics rejected by many. I see expanded concern for our international partners in the fight for democracy. I see love, sweet love, in unexpected corners. Call me an optimist but it all gives me hope.

Empathy. Try it. It's there to be had. No, not just for some. For everyone.