We become empathic when we develop our abilities to mirror others' actions.
We human beings share the potential to experience the full scope of empathy. We may express it differently, we may take actions that vary based on that empathy, but we can all work to develop the building blocks that lead to empathy. And that is important because when we are empathic, we are better at understanding others, we feel better understood ourselves, and we are more likely to be kind, cooperative, and helpful.
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There is no one place in the brain where empathy happens.
When we think of empathy we are likely to think “I hear you” or imagine “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” Or we might view empathy as feeling what another person is feeling, or understanding what he or she is thinking. It’s true that if we step into the place of another or imagine what that person is feeling or thinking we might feel empathy, but not necessarily.
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Children separated from their parents. Broken families. Does it matter whether it was due to policies left on the books by previous politicians or as a result of current politicians wanting to be tough on undocumented people coming over the border? No. The reality is that now, in the United States of America, we have put forth the worst of public policies that lack empathy.
Empathy involves connecting with another person’s experience by mirroring their emotions, taking their perspective and prioritizing their experience over our own. Can anyone who listened to the cries of children begging for their mothers and fathers, confused as to why they are in a metal cage without anyone they know, with strange adults who are not allowed to touch them, to comfort them, not be affected? They can be unaffected only if they don’t have empathy.
The leaders who are promoting the current treatment of immigrant populations are listening without empathy. This lack of empathy is unfortunately not new. Looking at the historical context of acts like this we will recognize a familiar sight. We already have a terrible history of separating children from their parents, using Boarding Schools to house American Indian children forcibly removed from their homes and breaking up slave families to force them to work harder or to be sold for profit. Isn’t that an ugly enough history of forcibly separating children from their families?
If ever there were a modern call for empathy, it is to feel the plight of young children separated from their parents at the U.S. border. And this has not been happening in a faraway country or decades ago. This is here, in the United States of America, in the summer of 2018.
What would it take for the leaders promoting these horrific actions to be empathic? Looking from the Social Empathy lens, it is evident that the empathic components of perspective-taking and understanding historical context are grossly missing. If those controlling these practices were exercising perspective taking, they would ask themselves, “What if this was my child? My friend’s child? Or me as a child?” If they were considering the historical context of this policy, they would recognize that most of them are the descendants of immigrants, people who came over scared, not sure of what they would find, but looking for the chance for a new, safe beginning. Lack of empathy leads to great hypocrisy. For so many of these policy-makers, if their ancestors had been treated the way they are now treating people at the border, they would not be here, they would not hold the positions they do now.
If you are having trouble with taking the perspective of these families, take a moment to imagine what it is like to be a young child, separated from your parents, surrounded by strangers in a place foreign to you, without any way to fully understand what is going on. How frightened might you feel? How scared? Now imagine why a parent would travel so far with a child for such a dangerous mission or even send that child alone? Can you learn about the conditions in the places these families are leaving?
My great grandmother was 13 years old when her family, poor and frightened of growing violence from marauding gangs, sent her to this country to live with her older brother to be safe. She traveled by trains and steam boat, with a note pinned to her jacket that had her brother’s name on it and her destination – Chicago, America. That was it. Her story is part of my family’s identity. And her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren were born here, worked here, raised children here, just like so many other Americans who also have stories like mine.
The families who today are walking hundreds and thousands of miles to do what my great grandmother did, can we walk in their shoes, feel their fears and hopes, learn about the reasons they came? Can we for a moment imagine what it feels like to be a young child, separated from our parents, alone in government camps? Take the perspective of others who are different from you, learn about their history and the conditions of their lives. If we can do that, we can build social empathy. When we use those skills, we can create better ways of treating others, we can create socially empathic policies.
This current policy of separating families at the border lacks empathy. In fact, I would say it ranks as the worst of our recent unempathic public policies. I shudder to think how bad it will get before we see any empathy in those who are in charge. Unfortunately, I fear that will not happen to such hardened hearts and minds. So it is up to the rest of us to use our empathy to change these horrible policies.