“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion.” (Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships)
We are a society in the grips of an existential and ontological crisis. On a daily basis, our consciousness is assaulted by an unrelenting cascade of often disturbing and contradictory information, messages, and images. Unmoored from long-standing traditions and hierarchies that gave us meaning, structure, and direction, we are floating in the proverbial ether of a fluid, rapidly evolving social biome.
The industrial revolution that brought us factories, standardized processes, and predictability have given way to a technological revolution that has disrupted our business models, transformed communications, and challenged the very notion of self and collective identity.
Cyberknights and Empathy
We have become cyberknights, wielding laptops, iPads, and the ubiquitous smartphone like rapiers, slashing our way through the virtual environs of modern life.
But all of this techothink has come at a great cost, often in ironic ways. We swim in a sea of connectivity while simultaneously drowning in an ocean of isolation. With a few clicks, we can amass information about almost any topic, but our well of wisdom is dryer than ever. We decry social injustices with massive protests, even as we savage each other on social media.
And though we have access to a slew of designer medications, the cumulative toll of stress has rendered us psychologically bloodied and emotionally bedraggled. As the writer and poet Munia Khan puts it, “A smartphone is an addictive device which traps a soul into a lifeless planet full of lives.” But make no mistake. Our problems with cell phones and technology are merely a symptom of a larger, furtive, encrypted disease: As we become atomized by the world we struggle to find connections to, we simply just don’t know how to be fully human anymore.
On an even more fundamental level, and much to the chagrin of Paul McCartney, we no longer know how to just “let it be.” At the end of the day, what we crave is connection, and for this connection to happen, we need empathy. Psychologists have often pointed out that in order to be a fully-functioning adult, we need to learn to delay gratification. Aristotle wrote about the need to be able to distinguish between temporary pleasure and long-lasting joy. Wisdom to be sure.
Empathy and the Present
Yet, a sort of dry wisdom as it relates to the modern human condition, for we need our hearts as well as our minds to feel fully alive. And to fill our hearts we need other people. And only empathy, the ability to peer deeply into the soul of another person until it merges with your consciousness, will allow this to happen. Without empathy, we will forever see others as separate beings rather than commingled threads in the fabric of our connected existence. The author and spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle captures this sentiment clearly and powerfully in his metaphysical manual, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment:
“The bond that connects you with that person [you love] is the same bond that connects you with the person sitting next to you on a bus, or with a bird, a tree, a flower. Only the degree of intensity with which it is felt differs.”
And though this task of reconnecting with others seems daunting, take heart. It’s as simple as having a conversation and actually listening to another person’s story. You may find that not only are you more emotionally enriched than before your encounter, but that you have learned something telling and deeper about yourself in the process. As Alanis Morissette puts it in her aptly titled song, Empathy, “Thank you for seeing me/I feel so less lonely/Thank you…”
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