A gap in understanding
It’s ironic, but America’s greatest strength may also be her greatest weakness. The U.S. is a “melting pot.” Ours is a country made up of numerous ethnicities, religions, skin tones, and dialect. Drive through our cities big and small and you will see enclaves of great wealth and pockets of utter destitution. We are, to coin a phrase, “all over the map.” Why is it that our eclectic society finds it difficult to empathize with others who may be financially, culturally, physically, or psychologically different from ourselves? When people say they sympathize with another’s plight but only in a peripheral sense, this “perfect storm” is called an empathy gap.
J.D. Trout is a philosopher of science, cognitive scientist and author of the book, The Empathy Gap, Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society. He defines empathy as the capacity to accurately understand the position of others—to feel that “this could happen to me.” Empathy, writes Trout, is a good thing. We like people who display it, and take its absence as a sign of pathology.
Trout lays out a case for enacting more effective policies in America by better utilizing people’s natural ability to empathize; an ability he says will always be with us. So, an empathy gap is that point when a situation exceeds our experience and we cannot relate to it.
Then as people of faith, we should remain acutely aware of the empathy gap. We should guard our hearts against it and teach our children about it. If we don’t, our limits on empathy will continue to negatively affect society with tragic results for others.
A new Kellogg School study finds that people fail to understand the consequences of the social trauma experienced by victims of bullying, teasing and ostracism. In these cases, the empathy gap can be devastating because it means victims often do not get the support, intervention or advocacy they need. "People have difficulty appreciating the full severity of social suffering unless they themselves experience it,” said study leader Loran Nordgren. “Only by having a heightened sense of empathy to victims’ true suffering can we begin to pave the way for reform and new policies.”
Phillip Parker’s family knows this suffering all too well. Their son was 14-years old—an 8th grader in Tennessee. Phillip had endured years of anti-gay bullying at school. Day after day he was teased, taunted and tormented. Despite his kind and outgoing personality, Phillip faded into the backdrop. He shrunk into a world of despair, the depths of which most will never know. He told his grandmother that it felt like he had a rock on his chest and he couldn’t breathe. Then, he took his own life. How do we make sense of the senseless?
'Empathy gap' is also blamed for the prevalent use of torture by some governments; is a recognized cause for large disparencies in social classes; and often a barrier to be addressed in United Methodist efforts to change the world through global initiatives like Africa University and ‘Imagine No Malaria’. Why should people understand and respond to needs half a world away?
Empathy is the foundation of the Golden Rule--“Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you." Although the word "empathy" never appears in the Bible, its healing characteristics are in page after page. Jesus himself showed empathy towards people time and time again. It’s why he healed the sick and raised the dead. Faith teaches us that we are flawed human beings; flawed when we treat each other poorly and broken when we can’t step into another person’s shoes and feel compassion.
Empathy is the key that unlocks the door to humanity. It can literally change the world. And where there is an empathy gap, we must use love and courage to bridge it.
More: Living What We BelieveOriginally Posted: Mar 26, 2012