Feeling Empathy for Others: It’s Not Enough!

By Shlomo  Maital


   In a recent blog, I recounted NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof’s story about his high school chum, Kevin, who died recently after sinking into poverty and despair:

   In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    Kristof, in a later column, reports that he got immense flack from readers for this column.  They said, it was Kevin’s own fault. He brought it on himself.   Those hard-hearted readers lacked empathy, he notes. 

    So do our leaders. It’s no wonder. Did you know that half of all members of the U.S.  Congress (House and Senate) are millionaires?  How can they feel our pain, our middle-class pain? 

     We need leaders with empathy.    Empathy – feeling the pain of others – is built-in to our physiology.  We have ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to feel what our counterpart is feeling at a given moment, not just pain, but joy, embarrassment, grief, happiness.  But over time, we can easily turn off those empathy neurons, and rationalize them away.

    But even strong feelings of empathy, I feel, is not enough.  I found David Brooks’ NYT column, written over three years ago, in Sept. 2011:

    Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.   There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. 

   In other words:  It’s not enough to feel empathy toward others.  You have to ACT on your feelings and do something about it, even something small and symbolic, at least once in a while, so that your empathy muscles do not wither.

     In our recent book Cracking the Creativity Code, we list 10 brain exercises to develop creativity.  The first of the 10, and most important, is “Act, Don’t Gripe”.    If you see something wrong, injustice,  try to fix it, take action, at least once in a while.  I know a friend, who always, as a matter of principle, gives small change to homeless and those who beg on the streets, even ones who are clearly running a scam. 

    I wish we had political leaders who were middle class working people.   We really don’t.  Until we do, it’s up to us.   Sharpen your feelings toward others.  Develop your empathy.  But don’t leave it at that.  Try to act on it.   If more people did that, maybe we wouldn’t even need to bother with those millionaires in Congress.