By Gina Stepp
April 17, 2013—The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” although an important dimension seems to be missing in this simple statement. I prefer the definition given by science writer Maia Szalavitz and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry in their 2010 book, Born for Love. “The essence of empathy,” they write, “is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.”
This is an ability that we can’t exercise if we lack emotional literacy, which social entrepreneur Mary Gordon explains as “the language of the heart.” The founder of an evidence-based and internationally-acclaimed program called “Roots of Empathy,” Gordon points out that children need help putting their emotions into words and learning to understand them and cope with them while also expressing them in appropriate ways. Together with empathy, she says, emotional literacy forms the foundation of morally responsible behavior.
Szalavitz and Perry add their voices to Gordon’s and many others who see empathy slipping as the tone of modern culture becomes increasingly harsh. To them, the indications of this change run the gamut “from calls for the legalization of torture to the actual practices uncovered at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and ‘torture porn’ movies like the Saw series.” They also cite reality shows that present the pain and misery of others for our ghoulish entertainment.
But there are more subtle clues to society’s “empathy crisis.” For instance, how quick are we to jump to judgments about the intentions of others, or to offer smug “eye for an eye” solutions to complex problems? It can feel deceptively good to strike back, especially when the strike is coated with a veneer of concern and called “tough love.”
That’s not to say we don’t need firm boundaries. It’s impossible for people to sustain love without them. But the “love” part of the phrase is supposed to refer to the attitude that is clear and present in their enforcement. Unfortunately, the oft-prevailing attitude might well provoke a bystander to remark, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
It’s interesting that the term “tough love” was coined by therapists Phyllis and David York, who developed a program in 1979 to support parents of problem teens. The intent was to help parents lay down appropriate boundaries in a context of unconditional love.
Since then, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own, however, and is now used to describe boot-camp approaches that overlook the love part of the equation almost entirely. It seems that many in our society believe love can accomplish more when unfettered by “soft” emotions like empathy and compassion.
This is far from the case. Empthy feeds relationships; and the human brain develops in the context of relationships. When they are secure and we feel safe in them, we learn and grow. When we are stressed and afraid, learning shuts down. To think that fear, competition, anger and vengeance can reliably motivate others to new, positive ways of thinking is a serious miscalculation. And it would also be a serious miscalculation to suppose that politicizing empathy could have a positive outcome.
“Empathy is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Szalavitz and Perry conclude. “It makes the modern world possible and allows the economy to grow. It’s not just a liberal thing: while conservatives may have attacked President Obama for emphasizing empathy in judges, the right wing’s opposition to violent and sexual media and its charitable missions recognize and seek to protect this quality.”
Suspicion and distrust are archenemies of empathy, which is one reason it’s much easier to extend empathy toward those in our “in-groups” rather than to outsiders. But it’s the ability to extend empathy beyond these natural barriers that is likely to make the difference in resolving some of our most complex global challenges. And while it may not solve all of them alone, Szalavitz and Perry rightly point out, “few of them can be solved without it.”
Gordon agrees. “The ability to take the perspective of another person, to identify commonalities through our shared feelings,” she says, “is the best peace pill we have.