Is Empathy Dead?

What empathy is, how to cultivate it, and why we need it now more than ever

As a side gig, on my days off from my day job as an optician, I drive for Lyft. To say that I have met some…fascinating people would be a gross understatement. I have picked up college girls from a hook-up’s house. I have given businessmen from around the world rides to corporate offices. I have picked up strung-out hippies from one sleazy hotel and dropped them off at an even sleazier establishment. One recent rider stands out though. We will call him Charles.

Charles delivers RVs all over the country. He was lucky to be in that line of work because he did not stop working during nearly the entire pandemic shutdowns in 2020. He has been all over the country. Dined at the best restaurants. Spent the night in the best hotels.

Charles believes COVID is a hoax. He believes that the virus and vaccine were created by the same people for the sole purpose of funneling money to big pharma. He believes the pandemic restrictions were designed to install a totalitarian regime sponsored by China to undermine American sovereignty. He saw a video on the news, what news he could not say, of a doctor from China saying that China was preparing to overthrow the government and take over America in 2027.

Charles’ daughter died a few weeks ago after her 5th open-heart surgery. According to Charles, they were unable to keep her in the hospital for observation because they needed the bed for a COVID patient, so, after her operation, they sent her home and she passed away the next day.

He also believes that people should get the vaccine because it is safe and is a way to show that you care about others. He believes, most firmly, that if America would turn back to God, and worship Jesus, that the pandemic would end, a Republican government will be put in place, outlawing abortion and ushering in the rapture and second coming.

I spent 45 minutes in the car with Charles as he explained all of these things to me.

Because of my role as the driver, and therefore a representative of Lyft, I was somewhat obligated to nod my head and let him say his piece. I guess I could have asked him to not talk politics or conspiracy theories. I am not sure I would have been out of place to do so. But at the same time, I found him to be extremely fascinating.

So I responded in such a way, to some extent, to encourage him to share more. I was digging a bit to figure out what he actually believed versus what he felt he needed to believe.

Without coming out and asking it, I wanted to know what his own personal biases actually were. In what ways his beliefs were the result of outside influence in contrast to those things he believed by choice or because he had become convinced were true at a later time.

Needless to say, I simply figured out that he was an inner mess of conflicting ideas and contradictory beliefs.

Just like you and me.

Empathy is defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Or, as the opening paragraph on the Wikipedia page about empathy says,

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

When I was conversing with Charles, this is what I began doing. It was not an active decision, but as I began to have a rudimentary understanding of where he was coming from, I began to see that not everything was as it appeared on the surface. Instead of seeing a full-blown anti-vax Trumper, I began to see the nuance to his perspectives. He had little trust for Fauci and the CDC and yet he also believed the vaccine was safe and necessary to reduce the chances of people dying from COVID, as one example.

After I dropped him off, I began to reflect on his stories and ideas. I mourned the loss of his 25-year-old daughter. I laughed to myself at his weird conspiracies about China and his acceptance of some really ridiculous right-wing ideas. But then, something else happened.

As I reflected on his religious perspectives, I started to see where, had fate had different plans, I would have likely felt much the same way about a lot of those things. According to his eschatological perspective, the pandemic, economic shutdowns as a result of it, the election of Donald Trump, and, subsequently Biden, are all signs pointing to the second coming of Jesus. The vaccine, while safe and necessary (he was vaccinated), was a step toward the mark of the Beast, if not the actual mark in itself. The rapture will be happening soon, and America needs to return to its foundation of worshipping God, specifically the god of white, conservative Evangelicalism.

This is the end-times framework in which I was raised as well (although I must say that the emphasis on whiteness and Republican politics was not always so pronounced as others). All of the events unfolding in the world, especially those impacting the Middle East, and Israel in particular, were signs leading to the rise of the Antichrist and the rapture of the church from the world before the time of the Great Tribulation.

Understanding where we came from is the key to understanding where others may be coming from. And this is the foundation for empathy.

Of course, in our current social and political climate, showing compassion, empathy, or understanding for others is not encouraged. Despite all of our rhetoric of love and caring, as a whole, we are not interested in being sympathetic to the plight of others.

Take, for instance, the recent Texas abortion bill.

Setting aside the moral implications of the bill, one of the things that defenders of the bill are not remotely considering is the impact that passage of a bill such as that will, and is, having on pregnant women in Texas. In their fervor to end the “murder of unborn babies” (their words), the pro-life movement is not for a moment considering the impact that their words and actions are having on others.

Whether their intentions and desires are right or wrong is of little consequence because their actions are harmful. A 12-year-old girl who is raped by her dad now has to live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of her life because of their misguided perception of what life is and is not worth protecting.

One could make a strong case that empathy is dead.

But is it?

In an immediate sense, empathy may be dead. But I indeed believe that there is hope for it to be resurrected.

At the time being, those who lack empathy are feeling empowered. But it does not have to remain that way forever.

In fairness, the pro-life movement may not even realize that they are choosing one set of lives to defend and one set of lives to neglect. It very well may not be a “misguided perception”, but rather simply a matter of not realizing they are creating an either/or scenario. In speaking with pro-life individuals, this has shown itself to be the case. The people I spoke with had not even thought about the further impacts of ending abortion. In their passion to defend life (“abortion is murder”) they just simply were not thinking about what happens next. As one person pointed out to me, there were nearly 55,000 abortions in Texas in 2020. But what was not acknowledged in those sorts of discussions is the fact that, if abortion completely stops today, in 9 months when those babies are born, that will be 110,000 people entering the healthcare system of Texas, assuming each abortion represents one pregnancy ended by one mom.

On the flip side, though, I did not know that there were so many abortions in Texas last year. As I searched the web and read, I even learned that was actually a decrease from previous years. There were things I did not know. But I never would have learned those things had I not taken the time to listen to their argument and take a moment to understand it.

The hope I have for empathy stems from these very same kinds of conversations. Every day, regular people are able to listen to each other and give each other a chance to make their case. Every day people choose to help each other rather than resort to blame and name-calling when they do not like what the other person is saying. Despite what the media (both mainstream and alternative media) present us with, a Trump supporter and a Democrat can ride in a car together and talk for 45 minutes without wringing each other’s necks.

Because in the real world, we are all able to get along with each other. In many cases, we have to get along. We have to work with people who do not share our beliefs or worldview.

Because of this, I hold out hope that we can get through these horribly divided times and actually come together to accomplish great things as humankind. But this is never going to happen from the seats of power. We can not rely on our leaders to unify us. They never will. Some are better at it than others, but that has to do with their ability to show empathy for others. Because empathy is contagious. It spreads slowly, but it spreads.

And it does not start at the top. It starts with each and every one of us. You can still believe that someone is wrong, because, believe it or not, some things people think and believe are wrong, and have empathy for them. You can understand how someone got to where they are today without agreeing with them. But it is only through that sort of understanding that we will be able to work together to meet common goals. By working together, those in the wrong can be turned toward that which is right.

But it takes time and it demands understanding.

Despite how it may appear, empathy is not dead.