The Role of Empathy in the 21st Century

by Gregg Hake on July 31, 2010

Whether or not you are religiously inclined, the statement purportedly spoken 2,000 years ago by a man whose worldview spawned a number of organized religions including Christianity – “Judge not that ye be not judged” – is worthy of deep consideration. Judgment, the arch-rival of empathy, is an insidious and pernicious human invention.

The millennium-and-a-half that followed the challenge issued by these words was characterized by a coarsening of human consciousness, particularly in the West. The restrictive and repressive grasp of the saeculum obscurum, the “Dark Age,” that followed the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire was not released until what we now call the Renaissance.

The Renaissance (16th-18th century) heralded major changes in literature, architecture, humanism and many other areas. The aperture in consciousness and human understanding generated the mental and emotional wherewithal for the period called the Enlightenment.

With the Enlightenment came the articulation of core values that continue to shape our lives, our decisions, our institutions and our societies. The ideas generated in the Enlightenment made us, again particularly those of us in the Western world, what we are today. The last 250 years of our experience could be said to contain the most concentrated progress of any era in recorded history.

One of the central tenets of the Enlightenment is universalism, the idea that all people share human rights and are deserving of dignity. Universalism is rooted in the idea that there is a common thread of truth that unites all people, despite the appearance of endless variety on the surface.

The technological advancements of our recent era in transportation and communication give the very real impression of a shrinking world. We’re learning more about one another more rapidly than ever and geographic separation no longer means isolation. The recent tragedy in Haiti, for instance, and the unrest in Iran are seen as affecting the whole of humanity by virtue of Twitter, YouTube and other digitally driven media outlets. The opportunity to care for others is at an all time high.

Empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, is a precious resource that allows us to thrive in an global, interdependent world. Despite major setbacks in the 20th century, empathy as a societal meme is gaining in popularity.

Of the many impediments to the cultivation of a sense of empathy in our citizens the refusal to relinquish judgment is perhaps the most well-entrenched in people, religious or not. Judgments held over time by individuals or by groupings of individuals tend to congeal or crystallize as prejudices, blockages which greatly compromise our capacity for empathy.

In this sense it is clear that: “Judge not that ye be not judged” is less of a disconnected, overly optimistic religious injunction than it is a statement of fundamental truth that describes the method by which our inherent capacity for empathy is unshackled.

I propose that we recognize empathy as the precious resource that it was, is and always will be, not just for the sake of continued advances in self-actualization, but for the sake of the world we, as human beings, share.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Flow

Imagine if everyone took this approach. Our world would be transformed! Thank you for highlighting this subject.

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2 Isabelle Kearney

I feel that this really strikes to the core of the problems that we face in ourselves and in the world today.

Anytime I have judged, I have failed to see the entire picture as well as ruined something not only for my self, but for others as well. Judgment isn’t determing what’s right and wrong, isn’t necessary for our survival and isn’t what sets us apart from animals. It’s what unites us, what opens the door to enlightment and understanding, what opens our heart and mind and what connects us to others.

This planet would be a completely different place if judgement ceased to exist.

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3 Coco

Crucial subject for today’s problems. How can we help to improve the world if our own heart is compromised by a lack of empathy. To make a difference in the lives of others I have to have the power of love. I know I can’t feel love when I’m already feeling dislike, disapproval or the feelings that we feel when we judge each other. Sounds simple but our culture is saturated with judging. I can see this will take thoughtful effort. Thanks for the inspiratIon.

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4 Joshua

Empathy is an immediate fulfillment followed by abstaining from the regular consumption of the “Forbidden Fruit” of Judgment… quite a sobering experience, and one I aspire to enjoy All the days of my life.
Thanks for shining the light on this subject, I plan to take full advantage of the aperture while it remains open!

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5 Colin

I can definetly see that empathy is the key for unlocking many of our world’s problems. If people could truly see and feel the problems others were having, and care enough to help provide solutions those problems, the world would be on its way to being a different place.

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