Empathy - our ability to identify with and respond appropriately to the feelings of others. Although not exactly a psychiatric term, its presence or absence certainly does speak to the mental health of an individual and society.

This capacity for understanding the feelings of another when we haven’t experienced them ourselves occurs when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and is one of the strange and wonderful qualities that separates us from many other animals. It is central to a healthy and functional human society.

When empathy is absent, we see bullying, racism, torture, rape, murder, genocide, dictatorships and other atrocities – the result of an inability or unwillingness to empathize with another person or group.

In our own society we also find less showy examples of a lack of empathy when we tolerate homelessness or refuse to help those less fortunate than ourselves. While not as dramatic as some of the above mentioned acts, these omissions do show a desensitization to the plight of others or lack of empathy in our midst.

True empathy is accompanied by action to back it up – a cool intellectual response is not sufficient.

Fortunately, the important skill of empathy can be learned by most people (with the possible exception of psychopathic individuals) and in my opinion it is a very important life skill for us to impart to the next generation.

Teaching empathy needs to start in a child’s earliest years and is something for which we all have a responsibility. Although the family setting may be an ideal place for children to learn and experience empathy, for those who grow up without parental supervision or in abusive homes, the development of empathy can go awry.

Poverty can also negatively affect a child’s capacity for learning empathy. Issues ranging from poor nutrition to lack of environmental stimulation can cause problems during the critical years of brain development.

Environmental stimuli such as video games, movies and television shows depicting violence without consequence or any attempt at creating an empathic understanding of the victim’s perspective may also contribute to cruelty and lack of empathy in our society.

When society values an everyone for him or herself, survival of the fittest attitude where the poor, mentally ill or physically incapacitated are left to fend for themselves, it shows a lack of sufficient societal empathy.

Unfortunately, given the vast scope of poverty, violence and family dysfunction in our society even though we are one of the most privileged on the planet, the teaching of empathy cannot be left to each family alone.

Empathy needs to be taught in schools from an early grade and we all need to pay more attention to the developmental needs of our children through quality day care, elimination of poverty and ensuring that all children are safe from abuse and neglect.

Some schools in our country have recently adopted a new program to teach empathy that involves bringing babies into the classroom and having the older children relate to the youngest and most vulnerable. This is a relatively new program, but is being well received so far.

Fore more information on the topic of empathy, read Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, an excellent book by author Mary Gordon.


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