Empathy can shine light on what divides us
How do we regard people we meet?
Most of us are paid by someone or something that sees people solely as potential sources of profit. McDonalds, Comcast, Facebook, Bank of America. Since people may provide those profits directly, as customers, or indirectly, by recommending others or looking at paid advertising, some courtesy toward us is prudent; but few for-profit corporations really care about our welfare. Legally, a corporation exists for one reason only: to maximize shareholder profit.
Most of us face temptations to see others mostly as sources for whatever we can get from them: dollars, things, recommendations, sex, food, information, knowledge, power, or higher status. Work trains us to. Elsewhere, people contribute to our charities, sponsor our softball team, listen to our radio station. Custom demands displaying some semblance of concern for others; and some of us actually do care about some of the folks we meet; but the dominant ethic of modern capitalist life is otherwise.
Maybe the village, in some earlier time was different. What food you didn’t grow you got from fellow villagers. You knew everyone. Family gatherings, sports and games, celebrations, feasts, education, worship, and fighting fires and foes together forged a bond in which making a profit was just a small part. Even a greedy SOB knew that if he carelessly made shoes that pinched, someone would demand replacements – or punch him out. If you cheated someone, everyone knew. If your carelessness poisoned someone, you had to attend the funeral and meet the eyes of the bereaved family for decades. That’d tend to make anyone more careful.
The dominant ethic of our present culture, unlike many smaller or more primitive societies, is profit. (Anthropological studies tend to show that smaller, simpler societies are not that way.) Our country’s vast size compounds the problem. If aspirin or a burger poisons me, the maker never knows my name. I’m an anonymous statistic in a ledger recording (if my family is lucky) that compensation was paid.
Meanwhile, more and more of our contact with other humans is “virtual.” Sometimes it’s not even with another human being, but a robot! Ethnic prejudices persist. Mindless party loyalties and the nature of the Internet tend to divide us, as does the media’s taste (based on the public’s taste) for scandal and sensation.
Maybe declining belief in religions contributes. Jesus and other prophets or wise folks had some great ideas; but centuries of infighting and intolerance, even violence, and of using religions to justify wars and the enslaving of others, has made it hard for many to equate religion with love, or even decency.
Perhaps the rapidly increasing speed of everything contributes, although humankind has complained of that for centuries!
I’m no expert. On anything. But I need no expertise to see how poverty and prejudice harm people and exacerbate life’s normal slings and arrows. As with prejudices, capitalism’s influence on us can be powerful, persistent, and unhealthy; and freeing ourselves from it can feel refreshing.
I’m not shouting “abolish capitalism!” or “back to the land!” I’m just saying, let’s look into things more closely, try to see them for what they actually are, and maybe compensate for our fear and greed, and anger and frustration, by dialing in more kindness. As a municipal judge from Roswell instructed other judges, “Empathy is the best tool in your toolbox.”
That’s a tool to which we all have unlimited access.