Degrees of Separation: The Antidote for Empathy

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“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” ~Mohsin Hamid

At a certain age (mine) you begin to read obituaries.  And you develop a systematic separation procedure to put as much distance between you and the deceased.  On a good day, everyone who has died is older than you, so that becomes a layer of insulation.

On a bad day, though, many of the deceased are your age or younger, so you have to work harder to separate yourself from their demise.  A fatal car accident merely reminds you to buckle your seatbelt, as surely the victim did not.  A deadly industrial accident makes you glad you work in an elementary school on sound ground.

You scan to the bottom of the obituary and try to surmise the cause of death based the charities designated for donations.  American Cancer Society makes you ask yourself, Am I due for a mammogram, skin check, colonoscopy? and  you pat yourself on the back because you quit smoking, as the deceased probably did not. Donations directed to the American Heart Association strengthen your resolve to hit the treadmill. You are surprised and suspicious if AIDS International is designated recipient for donations; certainly nobody you know would need the services of this organization.  If the named charity is Hospice, you reassure yourself that the angel of death was welcome.

Human beings are gifted at separating themselves from tragedy.  When we learn of some teen who has committed suicide or succumbed to drugs or has been arrested, we immediately try to think about all the ways their families are different from ours.  Perhaps the parents had time-sucking jobs or that child had learning disabilities, unlike your children, or was spoiled and had a fast car and scads of cash to get into trouble.  This makes us feel better about ourselves.  It separates us from a tragedy we convince ourselves could never befall us.  With each degree of separation and each layer of denial, empathy wanes.

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Friday night I returned home from a fun day painting pottery and, as is my custom, immediately opened my laptop and checked FB.  I was assaulted with images of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Almost instantly, world maps from my 7th grade geography book surfaced in my brain, and I did a mental scan of where my family and friends were.  Stacey and Nathan are currently stateside, but Allison and Henrik are in Oslo.  I googled the distance between Paris and Oslo:  835 miles, about the distance from here to Tampa.  That’s really far, right?  My daughter’s friend Victoria was visiting Paris, but it wasn’t long before she reported, via FB, that she was safe inside her airbnb apartment.  And I am not proud of this, but for just an instant I thought How will this affect my spring visit to Norway?

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Saturday, I watched interviews with Parisians, and like the rest of Americans I grieve for their loss of 132 precious lives and what little innocence remains in this world.  But, you see, I’ve already distanced myself from the tragedy.  My wounds are scabbed over, healed by the reassurance that this horror was far away.

I am not alone in this self-centered, survival instinct to distance myself from tragedy.  In a thinly veiled attempt to protect his travel business, Rick Steves posted an analysis of this terrorists attack on FB, comparing it to the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings, and pleading with people:  “Don’t be terrorized.”  This does not have to affect your life, he seems to say.  Everything will be right with the world tomorrow.

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Even before all of my friends’ FB profile pics turned red, white, and blue, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, and The Donald tweeted politically motivated statements that I will not quote, but their vile tweets contrasted our gun laws with France’s.  See, they imply, we are nothing like them, thank goodness.  This won’t happen to us.

A week rarely goes by that we don’t hear about one of America’s fallen heroes. There have been about 6,800 U.S. casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of their loved ones’ lives will be shattered.

We are all sincerely saddened by these casualties, but maybe we distance ourselves if we don’t currently know anyone fighting this war.  And we’d never admit that somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds we might think, well, it’s a volunteer army; they knew the risks when they signed up.  We will surely think about their families, but these families are something apart from us.

But how often have we thought about the slain Iraqis and Afghanis?  Have you ever heard the media report on how many of their civilians—moms and dads and kids going about the business of living—have been killed?  It’s as if these 210,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians who died don’t count.  We separate ourselves from these statistics.  We don’t want to think about people pretty much just like us — just trying to put food on the table and making a better life for their kids–being casualties of a war they did not sign up for.

Mankind is so good at detaching from tragedy that some calamities instantly slip through their empathy sieves.  Just one day before Paris was attacked, two suicide bombers killed 41 people in Beirut, Lebanon.  Like Paris, the rampages were claimed by ISIS.

While the French tricolor was superimposed on nearly all my friends’ FB lbfaces, where was the sympathy for Lebanon?  This disaster barely registered with me, and I admit that I didn’t know what the Lebanese flag looked like until I just googled it.

There are so many degrees of separation between us and this Arab nation, a country so far away and with a Muslim majority.  These degrees of separation are antidotes to empathy.

“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, wrote on his blog. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in THOSE parts of the world.”
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Australia

If you  Francofied your FB profile picture, perhaps you saw that there was drop down menu where you could limit how long you wanted this red, white, and blue to appear.  You could choose the number of days, up to a week.  A week sounds about right for us to stop thinking about “those people’s” problems.

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Noway

If there is any hope for peace in this world, it lies in the human capacity to walk in someone’s shoes, not for a moment, not for a week, but for our lifetimes, and not just for those close to us, but for those separated by many degrees.

 

“Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”~Sue Monk Kidd
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Brazil

Watch this brilliant and entertaining video that explains the difference between sympathy and empathy.

17 Comments

  1. Wow, Sandy, you really “nailed it”. As a wise rabbi said, “A lack of empathy is the root of all evil.”

  2. A timely piece. Thought provoking. The start of this reminded me of myself checking the obits and all that you detailed I do. I remember my father reading the obits. He’d joke, if he wasn’t there it was a good day. I was thinking about the tragedy in Paris this AM thinking our world is going to implode from all the violence and that retaliation breeds more violence,yet it needs to stop. I worry about my daughter in DC – a prime target and pray she will be safe in the years to come.

  3. Yes, you nailed it. You said what I thought and couldn’t articulate. Your worrying makes me look at myself, reflect and change. This is the mark of a good writer and a very good friend. Thank you for what you bring to my life.

  4. Empathy for me has become more REAL as I grow in years. But, yet, it is so difficult to “walk in someone’s shoes.” I believe you “nailed it,” with the choice of the word, SEPARATION! Remember when we were young and never thought the it would ever BE ME?
    When you mentioned, reading the obituaries… I read them with 81 year old eyes! Thanks for your “words “during this difficult world time!

  5. This is a beautiful post. It’s hard to separate from all the tragedy, but we try as a way of self-preservation. I can only handle so much of the bad news before it really messes with my head. At that point, I have to shut the laptop and turn off the TV. It’s just too painful to watch ad absorb.

  6. I would also add I am relieved on days that I do not know anyone in the obits. I too look at the bottom to see what could have gone wrong to take the people who are “my age” who have died. Sad but true insight on empathy. I first think of my daughter ,the first responder who would run into the melee, I know it. And then I am glad my son no longer sails the deep blue sea around the world. Separation is what keeps me moving forward, I hadn’t thought of it as lack of empathy, but it is. And it’s a kind of helpless feeling in a world wide sense, maybe it’s just a coping mechanism to keep us sane. You’ve certainly made me think about it. You’re killing me Lingo.

  7. I think my angst comes from not being able to completely separate ourselves from the tragedy of others. As I check off the list of how different they are from me, there is a part of me that knows it is a fruitless effort. If it happened to them, it could happen to me. Even though I might live in a different country, speak a different language, wear different style of clothing, worship a different God, we all share the same human emotions. We, and they, love families, living, culture, countries and we all mourn, bleed, pray, and hope. Whether it is Paris, Beirut, Boston, or Waco when it happens to them it happens to us. I hope I can embrace my own humanity and be grateful, without guilt, for the safety of me and mine while at the same time voicing a prayer for others in their time of need.

    • What a beautiful comment. That empathy overdrive is very, very heavy. “I hope I can embrace my own humanity and be grateful, without guilt, for the safety of me and mine while at the same time voicing a prayer for others in their time of need.” You are a very special person.

    • I agree. When it happens to them, it happens to us. It’s been going a long time.

  8. Sandy, Thank you for this wise and thought-provoking post. You have given nuance to the range of emotions we experience when we learn of terrible event that has not directly affected us, and reminded us that we often chose to ignore suffering and death when they do not occur in an arena with which we have some familiarity. The world needs your call for compassion and empathy for others now more than ever.

  9. So beautifully stated and relatable. I think back to September 11, 2001 (isn’t it somewhat devaluing to simply call it 9/11) and how I would react now, knowing what I didn’t think about then. “Never judge the game until you know the score,” but never mind that… You said it way better.

  10. Beautifully articulated, insightful, honest, and true. Thank you for your insight and wisdom, Sandy. I will definitely share this piece with others.

  11. This hits my heart hard. There is and always have been little to no empathy in many people. When I heard about Paris, I was momentarily shocked. Then shock went to anger! Any group of persons who claim to be the right hand of God are delusional. God is great and kind. Not murderers!! I say all life is precious. I am so sorry for all people effected by this horror. I am damn angry because I feel helpless. I can’t help them so I pray. I pray a lot for all of this evil to stop. But, you can’t change people, only if they want to. God help us all. Nothing worse than a crazy person with a cause.

  12. It is a lack of empathy, sympathy, or caring of one’s fellow man that drives these terrorists to perpetrate their heinous acts. We need to have feeling for the victims, but a certain amount of separation is necessary to allow us to live life. They are called terrorists because they make us feel terrorized, afraid to visit everyday places like stadiums, restaurants, and concert halls. As the mother of a sailor and a marine, I often feared turning on the news and learning what was happening in those places where my son’s were in harm’s way. We can pray, we can empathize, but when we are powerless to prevent the next terrorist attack, we must separate and go on with our lives.

  13. Sandy, my husband always read the obituaries as I remarked “why do you always do this?” Then two weeks ago I read HIS obit that the family had sent to the Enquirer. My granddaughter, Rose, was a fellow exchange student with the Long Beach college student who was killed in the restaurant in Paris–only Rose went to England. The terrorists have threatened Washington, DC–my daughter, Linda, lives in the DC area. Sadness, sympathy, and empathy have become a large part of my mental attitude in the last few days. What is happening to our world?

  14. Practicing empathy is the only action we can take to counteract our fear — the only POSITIVE action. All this talk this past week about closing the door to Syrian migrants has been a display of lack of empathy on a grand scale. I hope our leaders, and many of our citizens, can rise above their fear and show these people that their lives have value.

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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