When I read a news piece about the passing of longtime California senator Dianne Feinstein a few weeks ago, some of the comments left at the bottom of the online article made me sad.
Feinstein suffered a very public health decline before she passed.
Anyone with the slightest sense of empathy would think “there but for the grace of God go I” — as every one of us could suffer a similar decline before our time finally comes.
Empathy is in short supply these days, however.
I don’t recall the exact words, but some commenters who disagreed with her political positions wrote comments such as “good riddance.” Others used derogatory terms that portrayed Feinstein not as a fellow human being but as some evil entity whose death was a good thing.
This past weekend, as Hamas gunmen from Gaza invaded Israel, killing and assaulting hundreds of civilians, my heart ached for people like Shani Louk, a 30-year-old woman who had been attending a dance music festival when she was kidnapped and paraded through the streets semi-naked in the back of a pickup truck.
My immediate response was incredible compassion for the pain and terror this poor woman suffered before she was killed — my heart breaks for her and her family.
The immediate response from many others around the world, however, was coldhearted and purely political — that her suffering was Israel’s fault because the country supposedly had this terrorist attack coming.
Not only do we live in a time in which everything is political all the time, we live in a world where people with whom we disagree are no longer seen as fellow human beings who have differing thoughts, but as evil entities that must be stopped by any means.
Why have our hearts become so much harder? One of the key reasons is the way we now receive and process information.
Dr. Helen Riess, author of “The Empathy Effect,” says empathy’s decline has to do with social media.
A Street Roots report on her book says “many of the neurological keys to feeling empathy are missing from the exchange” when we communicate through texts, email and social media posts.
When communicating electronically, not face to face, there’s no chance of paying attention to body language and facial expressions — or to make eye contact, which is a really important component of empathy.
Psychology Today cites research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, that a simple lack of eye contact enables an anonymity that fosters rudeness and encourages online trolling.
Unfortunately, the magazine reports, the era of smartphones and social media — of nasty tweets and Facebook insults — is making rudeness “our new normal.”
Riess continues that without emotional cues that we can see, we’re left with only words (and images) on a screen, which leads to detachment and creates emotional indifference.
An increasing number of people treat those with whom they disagree this way — which contributes to the general decline of empathy in our civil discourse.
Though Riess says empathy is being blunted, she emphasizes to Forbes that it can be learned.
Her thinking is seconded by an interesting New York Times article that identifies specific actions we can all take to restore empathy in our own hearts.
The simple truth is that we need to stop hiding behind our electronic devices and actively engage with people face-to-face.
We need to set politics aside now and then to embrace our common humanity — and relearn how to sympathize with suffering when humans are at their worst.