Hyper-Individualism and the loss of Empathy

I threw these two ideas out there in the last post (There’s no such thing as a senseless shooting). Empathy is what we need….individualism on overdrive seems to be what we’re getting.

What’s empathy? And why is it so important?

Empathy is defined in many different ways, but the common definition is “the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another being”. Being empathetic is not the same as being nice. It’s not sympathy. It’s not compassion (although to be compassionate, you need to have empathy). It’s simply the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes, and understand (and feel) their emotional state.

I believe that empathy is a critical component of a healthy and functioning society. Thankfully it’s rooted in our biology. Children as young as two years old display empathy, and “children between the ages of 7 and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain”. What happens to our natural empathic tendencies?

We become individuals. And not in the rugged, western movie-star kind of way. We start playing video games. And surfing the internet. And going home after school to an empty house. We no longer live in a village, or even a town. We live in suburbs full of high fences, surrounded by neighbours that we never meet, let alone invite over for dinner. We teach our kids to fear strangers, and our schools practice lockdowns as often as fire drills. We sit in restaurants with our friends and spend the evening texting or tweeting everyone else. We have our natural empathic tendencies repressed by the systems we’ve created, systems created under the false assumption that we’re all endlessly materialistic, narcissistic and pleasure-seeking people.

We’re actively creating hyper-individuals, all the while lamenting the loss of our communities.

Of course, this isn’t a universal truth. There are people actively engaged in community building, in driving forward an empathic civilization. Online and offline, people are gathering together, in small groups and large, in a beautifully unstructured and chaotic movement towards a society built on empathy and love.

Here’s one of my favorite animated talks from the Royal Society for the Arts;

As I wrote this post, my Dad forwarded me an email. A rant, really, about creating the future we want. In it was a line that caught me.

Our humanity is our power.

It’s probably time to use it.