Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Circles of Empathy

Empathy, loosely defined, is the ability to appreciate another's problems and feelings—and it’s one of the things that define us as human beings. Empathy motivates us to do good deeds for others, and as an integral part of the human ethical construct restrains people from taking advantage of the weak. It could be argued that without empathy we would be little better than a pack of clever animals, every action committed in the name of self-interest—in other words, a society of borderline sociopaths.

Imagine that empathy is a circle that is around each person, with each individual at the center of that circle. Within this circle, and usually quite close to the center, are family: mother, father, spouse, brothers, sisters, and children. Moving outwards in that circle, but still fairly close to the center, are friends and coworkers. About midway out in this circle are the members of one’s community, and out on the further reaches are the members of one’s nation. Way out on the very periphery is the rest of humanity in the wider world. This is the natural order of things for a well-adjusted person in contemporary society.

Unfortunately, there are people whose circle of empathy has been so foreshortened that it draws fewer and fewer people. They care about the suffering of other people only so far as it evokes guilt or discomfort at seeing that suffering, or because it suits some crass and selfish need. There are even some people whose circles of empathy draws in only their selves. When people who have these foreshortened circles of empathy see some tragedy on TV, it’s upsetting to them—yet they don’t put any critical thought into the wider issues involved. To alleviate their discomfort, they rail against the injustice of it all—but the target of their indignation is not always the most deserving one.

This is why you see so much recent indignation about the US involvement in Iraq. As the military has gotten better at fighting against the insurgency, the insurgency has switched to attacking civilians. This disturbs the American public when they see the aftermath of the attacks on their TVs—as it well should. But where was this newfound concern for all the years that the former regime caused much more widespread death and suffering? And where will this newfound concern be if American troops leave and the insurgency rages on, as it certainly would? Sadly, the answer is that this concern was, and would be, missing—and it is this lack of context that threatens to paint us as the villain, even in our own homeland.

America is not only a powerful country, but a good country full of courageous, well-meaning and generous people. It is a challenge for us a powerful and good country to find those dark corners where evil exists and people suffer, and to help—with an open hand if possible, with a closed fist if necessary—whenever we can.

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