The Parthenon

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Embracing empathy to overcome growing national apathy

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Headlines this week have been heavy. Actually, headlines this week, this year, this lifetime, have been heavy. Tragedy is nothing new. Sometimes the constant influx of information makes it tempting to detach and forget the realities behind every news story.

While it’s easy to shut out the things that don’t affect us personally, a much more potent response is empathy. To try for a moment to feel what someone else is feeling, regardless of whether it actually affects you— that is powerful. Human beings have the incredible privilege of being able to empathize—to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Politicizing things often eliminates empathy. Real, tangible problems become a matter of dinner table debates. Politicians argue over problems they’ve never personally encountered, and cable news anchors shout at one another over issues they don’t understand.

Whenever I read a story, whether it’s historical or fictional or in the news, I sometimes realize that I have just taken in facts, but not let myself sit with the emotions that the people in the story must have felt. I can learn in a news story that, say, a mother lost a child, and think that is sad in a very objective, non-emotional way. But if I catch myself digesting information in that way, I pause and try to think of all the emotion that would be involved. I try to think of that mother waking up the next morning and remembering all over again, or how she could ever go back to work, or what will happen to her marriage.

Real, complex things happen to people every day, but we like to simplify and compartmentalize. We like to polarize. The reality is that right now in the United States, immigrant families are being torn apart from one another. Right now in Florida, 17 families are struggling to lift their heads. Right now in West Virginia, teachers feel so unappreciated that they aren’t in their classrooms. Right now in Huntington, hundreds of people are so enslaved to heroin, they can’t remember ever feeling hopeful.

When we hear these stories, we tend to hear them as pieces of objective information around which we build an argument for the side we are going to stand on and defend. We draw party lines and we wouldn’t dare cross them. But these issues are so much more complex than that. These issues are about people. How can we ever help find solutions if we forget about the people involved?

Here is my plea, for myself and for you: don’t lose empathy. The world can harden you, but you can’t change anything or help anyone if you are hardened. Remember that every piece of data reflects a person with a story. People are more important than politics, and policy should be about people.

Empathy is an absolutely necessary part in solving problems. If we want to promote change, and I think most people do, we have to think about people’s real experiences. We have to remember the lasting consequences behind every headline and every hot topic. We have to remember the people.

Lydia Waybright can be contacted at [email protected]

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