Sympathy, Empathy, And The Lack of Both In American Civil Society

This was originally posted at the American Spectator on March 1, 2018. 

The realization that the American political climate is hostile, unproductive and downright horrid over the past few years is nothing new to anyone.  The partisanship and tribalism that exists in our public discourse seems to find strange new ways to isolate and anger every corner of civilized society.

However, this animosity seems to be seeping into even the simplest of personal interactions, where criticism and abject hostility to those that are trying to simply be helpful and kind is now commonplace.

An illustrative moment this week was with the recent illness of director and actor Kevin Smith.  This past weekend, Smith suffered a massive heart attack, one which the actor himself stated may have killed him if he had not quickly and promptly responded to his own symptoms.

This is, of course, something that most of us can relate to.  Almost anyone alive today has lost someone to a heart attack.

This would have been a passing entertainment section story, except for the fact that on Twitter, actor Chris Pratt (of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World fame, among other things) tweeted out what is, to most of us, the most innocuous of well wishes for Kevin Smith’s quick recovery:

https://twitter.com/prattprattpratt/status/968041374565068800

For those of us that frequent Twitter, the response to this tweet was less than surprising. Many people quickly attacked Pratt, saying his prayers were unhelpful, and in fact, attacked Pratt for his belief in religion (Pratt is an avowed Christian, and has never tried to hide that fact). In all fairness, many followers also defended Pratt’s tweet.

However, this kind of response is now routine in the public square, and in many ways, goes to the heart of the animosity and discord that is readily apparent in our political debates. And this Twitter mob was relatively mild, compared to the now expected mobs that attack prayers sent to victims of mass shootings, like the one in Parkland two weeks ago. To me, the core problem with this is the worsening lack of sympathy and empathy in American society today.

First, let’s take a step back and truly appreciate what sympathy and empathy mean.

When someone tries to display sympathy for another person’s hardships and anguish, it is simply an acknowledgment that we understand what that person is going through, and we simply hope for their quick recovery. In traditional society, the quickest and most common way to demonstrate that heartfelt belief was to send prayers to those that were suffering.  Sharing sympathetic thoughts is one significant way in which we experience a greater sense of shared similarities together, and allows for a more profound personal engagement than one would generally have with people under normal situations.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to put one’s self into the shoes of another, and to truly understand their point of view. It allows us to come to terms with how others came to make the decision they chose to make, without allowing our own biases to cloud that judgment. So the uniqueness of empathy is that, unlike sympathy, it allows for people to join together and at least attempt to have a shared experience. First and foremost, it involves seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and second, sharing their emotions, including their distress.

When the Twitter mob inevitably arrives in these situations, the predictable response from many is “Well, you aren’t really DOING anything!!!” That, quite frankly, is not true.  Those people are taking time out of their day, and are spending the time to acknowledge someone else’s hardship. The first step in assisting others in their times of need is always, no matter what the situation, sympathy.

The irony is when people attack others for praying, or sending thoughts out to others…they themselves are demonstrating their own lack of sympathy.

In this situation, Chris Pratt heard of Kevin Smith’s ailment, felt bad for him, and sent out thoughts and prayers…primarily to signal to Smith that he was thinking about him, and hoping for Smith’s quick recovery.

No one, including Pratt, believes that this mental acknowledgement is going to magically correct the occlusion in Smith’s left anterior descending coronary artery.  People who think prayers are about ‘God’s magical powers’ largely miss the point.  Additionally, what other action was Pratt to take? He is no doctor.  He is rich; but so is Smith. Paying for Smith’s care is a needless exercise.

When people send out thoughts and prayers, they often feel helpless to help others. And many times in life, we ARE truly helpless to help. Sending out thoughts of sympathy is the one way we bind ourselves to each other, to understand we are not alone. That is how societies and cultures are built, and stay together; not necessarily with common action, but with a sense of common purpose and togetherness.

So in failing to understand that Pratt also had no real options in actual actions, the critics show a lack of empathy as well; they never actually say what Pratt should do. They simply scream that he is doing nothing, as if there is anyone, outside of Smith’s caretakers and Smith himself, that can do anything. Additionally, some percentage of these people are simply bigoted, and angry that Pratt (like the vast majority of Americans) is religious and believes in a higher power.

In short, these people spend their lives angry and complaining, but in truth are making it harder to bring people together in American society. And this is an apolitical statement; no matter what common good we want to perform in America, whether private or public, that process can only begin by groups of individuals taking time to be sympathetic to others; then, empathetic; and only then can they act.

Let us note that this kind of unsympathetic response is not unique to the random Twitter user as well. Plenty of supposedly intelligent people do this on a regular basis.  Astrophysicist and cult phenom Neil DeGrasse Tyson had a very similar response, after the Parkland shootings, that should feel familiar to the above discussion:

Tyson clearly doesn’t understand the basics of human sociology.  Humans naturally and instinctively try to band together. Their banding together occurs largely because we have cohesive groups that can show sympathy and empathy to one another.  This is critical to this particular discussion as well, because, what is the one characteristic mass shooters demonstrate more than any other? THEY ARE LONERS. A little sympathy and empathy, along the course of their lives, may very have well stopped those bullets, long before they had been fired.

I teach my boys this. When one boy is suffering, I tell the other “Tell him it will be ok; that they will get through this.” There may not be anything they can do…but the sympathetic thoughts matter. It gives one hope that they are not alone.

And if you are still not convinced, do me a favor: volunteer for a suicide hotline. I did this in college. It is quite illuminating. Sure, there are actions that can help save those considering suicide; but I found the most helpful thing of all? Convincing that person on the other side of the line that they are not alone…that people feel sympathy for their predicament. And that some of us are empathetic as well, and that their situation really is not so uniquely horrible that we can’t find answers together.

All of this brings us back to the political dialogue, such as it is, in the United States today.  The Twitter mob assault on Pratt is commonplace in virtually every discussion that is being had in politics today. Group A believes Group B doesn’t truly understand what they are going through, and Group B thinks Group A is being unreasonable.

Sound familiar?

This Chris Pratt episode simply illustrates to me, in a simple microcosm, all the major conflicts that are occurring throughout our nation. And to bridge that chasm, only greater sympathy and empathy, by all sides, can have any hope of bridging that gap.

In America today, too few people understand that the bonds that tie us together, the common sense of sympathy and empathy, are far, far more important than the ideas that pull us apart, like politics and personalities. In short, we would be a far healthier and happier country…if we bind ourselves to one another…if in no other way, than having common thoughts and prayers for each other’s well being.