Why we need empathy
09/11, I step into a cab in Bogota, Colombia, taking me to my office. On the radio, the news: a plane has hit one of the Twin Towers in NYC. By the time I get to the office, switch on the TV, a second plane has hit the other Twin Tower.
12/15, I am in NYC during the week-end while training during the week across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Going down to the Memorial is an obvious stop. I had been there the first time in 1980 with my parents and again in 2003 with my boyfriend.
As I arrive, I think to myself, they did it again ! These Americans who can rise from ashes just like the Phoenix ! They did it again! it’s splendid! it peaceful, it’s sacred, it’s a real memorial. The place is huge and you cannot walk around not thinking of where you were when it happened. I can’t prevent my brain from thinking of the people who died, imagining their last phone calls from their offices, from planes, how loved ones felt on the other side of the phone line, the fear in the streets, people literally facing death and being trapped. I shiver. I have tears in my eyes, just like when I watch the news, on the 22nd of March 2020 in the city of Bergamo, Italy.
I think of all the people in hospitals, the alarmed families, the grieving families who can’t start their grieving process because they can’t say goodbye to their deceased loved ones. I think of the doctors and nurses who are running day and night to save lives and who must be exhausted, scared, determined and maybe also angry. I think of all the staff that is helping the hospitals to remain clean and safe, the drivers in the ambulances who thanks to the confinement don’t have to face on the road the usual morons who block their way to the hospitals. I can literally feel it their stress.
I think of how they will all feel when this is over. How they will cope with the stress that is keeping them now focused but that will backfire at some point. I think of these new doctors, young nurses who have never seen a dead person. I can anticipate the exhaustion they will feel and imagine some of the emotions they might experience.
I think of all these people who are the real heroes, these people who make our daily lives possible, especially in those Covid19 times and I wonder if I am the only one when I see people who still don’t get the message of what « me over we » means and why we need social distancing. I feel angry.
I love the definition of empathy by Audrey Hepburn as she speaks with Fred Astaire in Funny Face: (…) empathy is to project your imagination to actually feel what the other person is feeling. (…) it reminds me of Obama’s speech on empathy deficit in 2006.
We can’t create a better world without empathy. History right now is showing us more than ever that we are social animals and if we want to be there for one another, independently of the relationships we have, empathy, is one of our most valuable and necessary skill. A pillar of emotional intelligence and of social awareness.
You don’t need to experience what others are experiencing to feel empathy. You need to be able to project your imagination like Audrey Hepburn says, maybe it is easier if you went through similar hardship, maybe not. It certainly needs an authentic experience of a variety of emotions including suffering, sorrow, grief, adversity, … But in a society that favours comfort and pleasure over any other emotions, this might reveal itself more challenging than one might think. Hence the need to experience other emotions than exclusively hedonistic ones.
A lack of empathy leads to selfishness and disconnection, which in its turn leads to individualistic behaviours where my pleasure, my wellbeing is more important than that of society, of nature, of the Planet.
If Coronavirus is not showing that, I don’t know what will nor what our society needs to wake up to the need of empathy. Oh and by the way, empathy also leads to a greater ability to be grateful. Like when I watched the news yesterday and saw how Nigeria is retaining its breath as the Covid19 is coming their way and I am feeling grateful for our clean streets.
If we get the teachings of this pandemic right, an altruistic society might become the new norm. I must confess I don’t have high hopes. I would love to be proven wrong.