Reclaiming Empathy: Why Should We Care?

By Chanie Wilhelm, Milford, CT
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016

In a fascinating comparison of the last few American generations , the shift in focus from just over half a century ago to today is glaring. Previous generations’ core values are listed as beliefs such as “Contributing to the Collective Good is Important,” “Dedication/Sacrifice,” “Family Focus” and “Giving Back is Important;” today’s generation fires back with core values such as “Extreme Fun,” ”Likes Personal Attention,” “Self-confidence,” and “Now!” A very telling statement of the new “center of gravity” of the current population is the fact that the generation of Millennials (born 1981-2000) have been dubbed the “Me Me Me Generation.” One “me” doesn’t suffice for the amount of narcissism demonstrated by the young people of today! What is the fallout of this attitude? If narcissism, an extreme form of egotism and self-centeredness, is classified in part as an “impairment in empathy” , then it reasons that empathy is the antidote to this ubiquitous self-centeredness. But in a culture like ours, where personal gain trumps all, is there any room for empathy in our lives? And if there is, how do we cultivate it?

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is the midah that lays the groundwork for so many vital traits and actions that we all strive for, namely Ahavas Yisrael, love of our fellow. Empathy is the foundation. It is key to instilling love in our hearts towards our fellow, as taught by the Alter Rebbe in the Tanya” He explains that empathy, which is a stronger and more personalized form of sympathy, nullifies hate. Logic dictates that the inverse of this statement is also true: a lack of empathy can cause a serious deficiency in our capacity to love. Without empathy, there is nothing to support the best intentions in the world to cultivate Ahavas Yisroel. When empathy is lacking, the support crumbles, bringing other achievements to the ground. Bullying, bigotry, intolerance, acts of violence, and more all find their roots in the lack of the ability to understand the feelings of another. The resulting apathy can be the breeding grounds for nefarious actions, and more subtle ones as well.

Chassidic thought establishes the link between narcissism and the antithesis of ahavas yisrael—feelings of hatred. The Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Chabad Rebbe points out that hatred that does not stem from a hurt or wrong (called baseless hatred), even when rationalized, does have a true, underlying cause that may not reflect all the “justifications” given. “Its cause is yeshus- egotism. [One] is so important in his own eyes that his yeshus and self-concern are dominant in every particular aspect of his life. His yeshus does not leave room for anyone else; he views another’s existence as a detraction from his own, and hence intolerable.” In fact, the Talmud “quotes” G-d as saying, “He and I cannot dwell in the same space,” referring to one who is self-absorbed. So we’ve established the fact that self-absorption is a severely negative trait, one which can lead to not just indifference but actual hatred.

The centrality of the command to “Love your fellow as you love yourself” (referred to as Ahavas Yisroel) and its integral role is famously taught by the sage Hillel, who told a potential convert: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Underscoring its importance is the fact that it is Ahavas Yisroel which the Rebbe chose as a focus in his inaugural address. At that time, the Rebbe elaborated on how one’s love for his fellow affects one’s love of G-d and love of His Torah. Chassidic thought states, “…the interrelation of the souls of Israel with each other, becoming truly one, as if a single entity, evokes a most wondrous effect Above.” So it is apparent that empathy, which is the foundation for our ability to fulfill Ahavas Yisrael, brings many positive results. And it is specifically empathy which arouses that love, as explained by the Alter Rebbe in continuation of the above-quoted verse, “Empathy…arouses love.”

But how do we go about developing this characteristic, when everything that drives our culture and the messages society imparts run counter to it?
In a fascinating exposé of the famous story of Hillel (referenced above), the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek wrote that a self-absorbed person is not necessarily unaware of his faults; rather he loves himself so much that those faults are insignificant. The solution, as he wrote: “…we can appreciate Hillel’s statement: “What is hateful to you” — i.e., having one of your shortcomings revealed — “do not do to your fellow”–do not expose his faults and imperfections, Do not make them noticeable and concrete. Instead, let your love for him be so great that it covers his flaws and does not permit your intellectual awareness of them to evoke an emotional response. Let the love overflow!

If we seek to cultivate our awareness and sensitivity towards others, the first step must be to remove the obstacles that stand in the way, as explained by the Tzemach Tzedek, with an outpouring of love, which begins when one is able to transfer his self-love to another. This is the basis. Some subsequent methods and approaches for restoring empathy:

1. Contemplation of the Chassidic philosophy that we are all truly one, compared to different limbs of the body. If one limb is hurting, it affects the entire body.
2. Embrace challenges to your ego as an opportunity to work on humility. This is praiseworthy for, as the Sages taught, quoted in Tanya, “One should be humble of spirit before everyone.” Humility allows us to see others in a different light.
3. Stay away from narcissist thought and self-centered behavior. Catch yourself and ask: Am I taking up so much space that there’s no room for G-d?
4. Try to “put yourself” in the other person’s situation. Chassidus explains that knowledge “gives birth” to emotions. If you try to truly understand where the other person is coming from, you will be able to relate and “feel” their feelings.

It’s interesting to note that in business and the workplace, empathy is pointed to as one of the strongest indicators of success. Forget ethics training, focus on empathy, says an author on this subject. Multiple studies show that training people to be empathic and to engage sensitively with others will boost a business’s success. With Chassidus, we understand why this is so. Teamwork is integral to business; if empathy strips away feelings of self-importance, then the effect is a more cohesive group of people, more ready and able to put aside differences and work towards their common interests.
In summation, the subtitle of this essay really has a double meaning: 1) Why should we care in general, i.e., why empathy is important, but more than that: 2) Why we should care about restoring the lack of empathy, and why it’s so vitally important to our generation. Both of these questions, along with practical tools for reclaiming empathy, have been addressed through the lens of Chassidus.