Last fall there was a shooting at a small community college not far from where I live in rural Oregon. Like many people, I was horrified and shocked by the tragedy. I felt outrage at the injustice, but even more so I felt deep sadness. I hope many Americans shared in my confusion and disappointment when soon after the event, neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson stated on his Facebook page, "I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away." This is only one example of what I perceive to be a fundamental lack of empathy that has become an epidemic in our culture. When a busload of children from El Salvador who were fleeing violence were met by protestors holding signs that read, “Return to sender” and “Illegals out,” they were faced with the insidious de-valuing of empathy that we witness in the U.S. all too frequently. In response to the crisis in Syria, more than half of America’s governors were opposed to accepting refugees fleeing war, death, and destruction. When a teen was violently ripped from her seat and pinned to the ground by an officer for refusing to leave a classroom, many, including the media, asked, “What did the girl do to bring this on herself?” as though there is a justification for physically harming a teen for petulance.
What’s to be done about the callous indifference to violence and suffering in this country? Harper Lee famously wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Empathy is truly the key. Individuals with more empathy naturally find commonalities with those who may seem different. Once you’re able to understand the life and values of another person, you’re less likely to find them scary and foreign. If empathy were a skill taught to children from a young age and developed throughout the years, fewer children would feel marginalized by their peers. When people receive genuine empathy, they feel fully understood; they feel heard. They no longer feel isolated but instead drawn into a caring, concerned culture. If empathy were taught to each child as something of value and importance, there would naturally be less bullying and less perceived need for retaliation.
It’s easy to become hopeless and despondent upon learning of a tragedy and then witnessing the popular reaction that inevitably follows. We can read about victim blaming and feel discouraged about its implications for our culture. However, there is reason to hope. Modeling empathy, advocating for compassion, and instilling a sense of social justice in our youth have the power to create a powerful paradigm shift. It can start with small efforts like recognizing when someone is having a difficult time and choosing to truly listen rather than jump to offer solutions or justifications. Change could come as easily as recognizing the fear or pain that is thinly veiled by verbal aggression. It means modeling empathy for others who haven’t practiced the skill and thus don’t have the capacity to offer it to themselves, let alone others. On a large scale, teaching empathy in age-appropriate ways throughout a child’s school career could stop the next tragic shooting from occurring. If this seems too idealistic, I would suggest it’s our best hope for reducing violence and granting dignity and respect to every human.