The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”. Empathy is what makes us human, it is how we connect with one another and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. I am about to graduate from the University of Connecticut with my master’s degree in social work, and this thought is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, especially within the current political climate. For social workers, the ability to empathize with others is at the very core of our profession. Before we even begin work with a client, we anticipate how they are likely feeling and stir up those feelings within ourselves. During session, we sit with our clients and experience their emotions with them. This is difficult, often even painful, but it enables us to develop deep connections and it is a truly human experience.
I feel as though, slowly but surely, our world is losing empathy. We are disconnecting from one another. In social work, this is called empathic withdrawal. It is a process through which we subconsciously close ourselves off to empathy so that we do not have to feel the same pain that our clients are feeling. As a society, we have been so overexposed to violent images and horrific news stories that we become numb. This is true for me, even as someone who has chosen a career that is based on empathy. I recall being a fifth grader who was devastated upon learning about the attacks on September 11th and a middle schooler who cried every time that I heard that a murder was committed. However, as I got older and was exposed to more news stories, the less emotionality I connected to the pain and suffering that I was hearing about. In my opinion, this is a huge concern.
Why is it that we turn our gaze away from an individual who is homeless and asking for money? Why do we barely blink our eyes when we hear that another person of color has died at the hands of the police? How do we sit by calmly while an entire generation of Syrian children question what their futures will look like? Why does it take an awful tragedy, an attack on our own soil, a photograph of a man holding his dead twin toddlers, to stir up something that looks like empathy?
This is not to say that there is no hope and goodness in our world. There certainly is and I have seen it. It was on June 6th when two Syrian families arrived in West Hartford, supported by local faith communities. It was at the Capitol building in Hartford on January 19th during the Women’s March. It was at the West Hartford Town Hall on February 1st when hundreds of people came out in the cold to support immigrants and refugees. It was at UCONN School of Social Work on March 23rd when I spoke at an event supporting reproductive justice and Planned Parenthood. These acts of love, kindness, and support have brought hope in a world that sometimes seems hopeless.
I am an optimist. I believe in the goodness of others. If you ask me, human connection is the best part of life. We cannot lose our ability to empathize with others. Rebuilding our capacities for empathy is quite simple. When you hear a sad story about someone, take a few moments to close your eyes and really imagine how that someone must be feeling. When you deliver news to someone, whether it is happy or sad, tell them in person, not in a text message. Ask others about their experiences, ask them how they feel, how they cope. We should not be afraid to empathize because of uncomfortable or painful emotions. I guarantee, through this process, what we will all learn most, is the incredible strength and resilience of the human race.