I feel your pain. . . but I just don’t care.
Empathy is great. However, on its own, it’s worthless. Feeling someone’s pain as if it were yours does absolutely no one any good if you don’t engage the second, most important, part of empathy.
You must act on your empathic feelings.
Consider this situation:
A young boy near you in the park falls down, skins his knee and starts screaming and crying and holding his knee. You see this and your knee flashes in empathic pain as you relive similar incidents in your own life.
So, we’re all in agreement that the above constitutes empathy, yeah. What happens next?
You shrug and go back to reading your Kindle. Or, seeing that no one has come to the little girl’s aid, you look around and spot the girl’s mother, who is deeply involved with changing another child’s diaper. You let the mom know that her child is in pain and then offer to help.
Which reaction actually does anyone any good? Well, I suppose the first one could do you some good if it’s a really good book you’re reading, but that’s not really what I’m getting at here.
Realizing someone is in pain and choosing to do nothing about it is, to me, even crueler than not even recognizing the pain in the first place.
What you’re saying is that the pain of other people doesn’t matter to you. And we’re back at questioning whether other people really, truly exist as anything other than NPCs wandering through your staged life.
They do exist. I exist. You exist. I’m not so sure about Rush Limbaugh**, but you get the point.
When you feel pain, when you’re in pain, you don’t simply sit there and let the pain continue. You actively do something to ameliorate your pain, whether that be talking with someone about your bad breakup or removing your hand from the natural gas flame on the stove.
You do something.
Because your parents did their job right, you also possess empathy and feel the pain of others as if it were your own. Since you understand/feel their pain, to consider yourself fully human, I think if your actions can make an impact* on the situation, you must actively do something to end the pain they feel.
Once little dudes and dudettes understand that other people really, truly exist and deserve consideration, they really do internalize the empathy. They begin to live it out. When they see another little kid in pain, they’ll walk over and (as the above picture shows) put an arm around the kid and show support.
It’s only as we grow older that we begin to regress in how we deal with empathy. We begin to ration our empathic responses. We begin to categorize the pain of others as worth less than our own.
Is that really what we want to do? Is that really the legacy we want to pass down to our kids?
Footnotes & Errata
* Note the use of impact as a noun. Because it is a noun. Impact is not a verb. You can make an impact, but you cannot impact something. And don’t even get me started on the abomination that is *shudder* impactful.
** Because no one could really believe what he says and act like he does. I’m almost certain he’s a performance artist doing a long-term installation.