Empathy. Just saying the work provokes a feeling of warmth, understanding, and kindness. We pride ourselves on kindness, don’t we? Our children are taught from the moment they enter kindergarten, or even pre-school they should be kind, loving, forgiving, and understanding. Empathy isn’t anything new, it’s been around since humans inhabited the earth, but it’s never been as overwhelming an ideal as it is for this generation and the one previous (I can’t keep all the generational names straight: Gen Z, Millennials…who cares). We’re imbued with a sense of empathy almost from birth. We’re told we have to understand “where they came from,” or “what they’ve been through,” or “how they’re living, dying, eating, drinking, breathing, walking…”
There’s even a writer on Substack whose tag line is “Empathy Everywhere.”
If you’re not perceived to be empathetic enough, you’re “hard-hearted,” “unfeeling,” “cold.” Your name may even be dumped into the slop bucket of “Fascist,” or “Nazi,”; terms synonymous with brutality, forced order, and harsh rules. “They”, the empathy police, always come back to those terms.
I wonder why they never use the term “Legalist”, that of the ancient Chinese whose entire society was based on “legalism”, a philosophy of forced law and harsh control which was brutal in itself. Nor do they spew their venom using the word “Communist,” or “Bolshevik,” Stalin killing and torturing more people than Hitler, an internal genocide of massive proportions.
“You Communist!” doesn’t seem to have the same cachet as “Fascist!”
What’s even more interesting is that in most instances, those tossing about the terms “Nazi,” and “Fascist,” really do not understand what those terms mean, or what they stood for. They’re essentially tossing them around as if to say “meanie.” As Indigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that term. I do not think you know what it means.”
But I digress…
Empathy is one of the most powerful tools we humans have. It allows us to commune with others, form a semblance of understanding about their current situation in an attempt to provide some humanity, mercy, understanding. It allows us the attempt to “walk a mile in their shoes” and all of the other phrases one can conjure up to equate feeling and kinship. Empathy is a human virtue, and one of our greatest strengths. It helps us feel.
As with all things, empathy can be destructive, a blinding light that will not allow us to see one’s true colors. It makes the skeptical too accepting or at least willing to accept that which is not normally acceptable. It hides the truth, obscures the problem and the pain, sometimes resulting in unfortunate circumstances for those who receive too much of that potent drug.
Too much empathy can weaken the person being empathized with, atrophying their ability to address their weaknesses, address their faults, and come to grips with the notion they may be in the wrong. Too much empathy can make the wrong feel right, providing the cover they need so they do not address what needs be addressed—their own failings. Why should they? Everyone around them seems accepting, so “I must be ok and my critics are wrong.”
Therein lies the problem.
Too much empathy hides the fact that what one is doing is wrong. Don’t sit there squirming in your chair because I said that…it’s true. The problem with our over-empathetic society is we’ve become too accepting of just about everything in the name of empathy. The line between right and wrong is blurred. Proper behavior, or what was once considered proper, is overshadowed by the notion everything everyone does is of value…which is not the case. We’ve become drunk on the notion of empathy, to the point we no longer wish to discern between right and wrong in our society because it might offend someone. They may not like the fact they’re wrong and they’ll feel bad.
At its core, empathy is about feelings…and being too worried about one’s feelings is no way to lead a team, run a business, or govern a nation.
Let me be clear…there should be a certain amount of empathy towards everyone, as I said earlier, as it is one of our greatest strengths, one of the qualities that separates us from the beasts. However, when empathy becomes the driving force of decisions…hard decisions…and swamps us as storm waters over a boat, something is wrong. We are not built to have overflowing empathy. Humans need hard teachings, hard lessons. We must balance NO with Yes. We must not succumb to the softness overwhelming empathy creates, for to do so would be to forget how much we need harshness as well.
Such lessons of difficulty provide the outer coating we need to truly thrive, a coating we never develop if overwhelmed by empathy. This is especially counter-productive for our children who need the reasoned guidance of mature adults. Without hard teachings, without a “No”, they become unable to cope with the sometimes bleak realities life provides. They are denied the armor they need, entering the colosseum without protection.
The public is enthralled with stories of overcoming hardship, staring death in the face and telling it to “F” off, or being afflicted with something and despite said affliction, overcoming to achieve great success. The story of humanity is riddled with those who overcame overwhelming odds in order to succeed. They make for great books and great film. What was the driving force? Perseverance, persistence, and a hardness that did not allow them to accept failure. Hard truths told. Honesty, not debilitating empathy.
Our public policy is being shaped by too much empathy, as is our school policy. Not everything is ok, not everything is excusable, and yes, sometimes people’s actions are wrong, period. There isn’t always an excuse, there are not always extenuating circumstances. Sometimes no is no…end of discussion.
Nothing of extreme is good, not even chocolate. Too much water and we die. Too much love and we become suffocated. Too much empathy, and we atrophy our ability to cope, leading to despair and sadness.
We’ve lost our balance and if we do not regain it soon, we will continue to fall.