Learned or innate?

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Empathy, whether it is learned or is innate, seems to be of great debate. I naively assumed it was common currency one begins trading in early childhood establishing a sense of community, fairness, and shared human experience. If you’re inclined to believe in Karma theory, it’s also good insurance. A basic tenet of our formative years, it seems to be in high demand but short supply in adulthood. It is easy to assume those who fail to demonstrate empathy either lack foresight or possess a robust sense of entitlement. However, it may be a symptom of greater cultural forces and we remiss to assume it is simply due to ignorance or narcissism.

Even health care providers, those we assume care for others, need to be reminded of the value of empathy. The Cleveland Clinic released a video about empathy that went viral as other medical centers quickly tried to imitate it. Some say we are living in the “Age of Entitlement” blaming “Millennials” who suffer from “trophy syndrome.” Entitlement is not a new problem. Even Abraham Lincoln is quoted to say “You cannot help people permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves.” But, is lack of empathy directly correlated with narcissistic entitlement? Other factors may be inflating this epidemic.

Time moves quickly; too quickly. Technology designed to save time has taken it away. “We used to wait,” a song by Arcade Fire describes how times have changed, contributing to an overall sense of impatience. We did. We use to wait with less expectation for instant gratification or immediate response from others. We weren’t entitled to the instantaneous. Friendships were maintained through time spent not through social media posts. Feelings were conveyed through facial expressions and tone of voice not emoticons. Cell phones did not decorate dinner tables. We had time and spent it with others. We often waited and the anticipation proved engaging.

In an age of connectivity we are more isolated than ever. Psychologists suggest that empathy teaching begins with our parents but is reinforced by our community of peers, teachers, and leaders. Community boards are online. Education is online. Even our love lives are confined to dating websites. Connected, we are lonelier than ever and intimacy is increasingly scarce. Instant access has made physical interaction with other humans obsolete, and our empathy is eroding.

Perhaps empathy IS innate. Has it has been bred out, leaving generations of apathetic hermits? On the contrary, it is more likely that electronic connectedness has assigned higher value to image than authenticity. We prioritize the profile over the personal.

Whether innate or learned, empathy takes practice. Further, I argue, it is still a valuable currency. Listen more than you talk. Smile more. Honk less. Put down your phone. Wave “hello” to your neighbor. Consider others. Help someone. I’m confident your empathy will return to you more often than not, regardless of your Karmic stance. Let’s try not to be the ignorant cranks we readily assume of others.

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