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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


The capacity to feel and react to the misfortunes of others is not a given, despite the fact that it appears to be a trait we are all born with. The behavior we describe as empathy is evident in infants and young children, and remains as such through adulthood unless we are discouraged or taught otherwise by word and deed.

Whether out of ignorance, prejudice, or the continuation of familial and/or social orientation some individuals learn to ignore their human instinct to nurture and protect others—either those who are different in some way from them or simply those who are weaker. It has been argued that the predatory nature of this behavior may have its roots in a form of survivalism but among higher mammals—for example the great apes, we do not routinely observe anything of the sort. Rather, we see clear examples of empathy—protection and a sense of social community. Crows, dogs, cats and many other animals mourn for the loss of one of their kind, and companion animals are known to grieve the loss of a human companion.

How then do we explain the inability of humans to relate to the suffering of others? One theory making the rounds in these politically charged times is that empathy for some is the product of personal experience. That is, some individuals only express empathetic feelings once they have suffered or experienced the same plight as others. There is of course truth to be found in this theory but like so many other observations that are tinged with a political color they do not sufficiently explain what we observe.

Consider the Pandemic which in many different respects has become an issue of political dimension rather than public health. Everything from the wearing of masks to the very existence of the Covid-19 virus and of course vaccination have become symbols for some of the most pervasive conspiracies, government and media instigated hoaxes designed to control, delude, and invade our persons towards some infernal purpose. In the midst of this insanity, empathy for those who have suffered, died, or lost a dear one is palpably non-existent. If the theory regarding personal experience were true we might expect that those who hold to the belief that it is all a hoax might alter their view once infected, but that has not always proven to be the case—in fact some have held to their view even as they expired from the disease.

I don’t want to lose sight of the larger frame, though, and that is to try to understand the process by which the natural empathy with which we are endowed at birth is transmuted. I said earlier that it appears this process is taught, consciously or otherwise by parents, family and immediate community. To be clear, when we observe what I call selective empathy or lack thereof in an individual we are likely to see the same expressed by those with whom that person commonly associates. There is nothing startling in that observation, we are social creatures and we congregate with those who are ‘like us’. Clearly these communities are self-reinforcing.

Wherever we see divisions among humans, whether based on apparent physical difference, race, religion, politics, geographic or social and financial distinctions or any other ‘different-ism’, we will also find the associated justifications in the form of racism, race superiority, bigotry, religionism, and so on. With the exception of sociopathic individuals, we will also see selective empathy—regard that is limited to those within the limited community but which does not extend to those who are outside; the others. The literal alienation of other-hood underlies and provides internal justification to limit our native tendency to feel what other humans feel and to extend to them our concern, protection or regard.

If we have any hope of altering the trajectory of those who lack a more universal and less selective form of empathy we must first acknowledge that all of us possess –even if latent, some degree of other phobia. Perhaps it is sexual, a dislike or discomfort with those whose orientation differs from our own. Or it may be more prominently a superficial acceptance of those whose religious beliefs differ from ours while harboring a sense of superiority in our faith. And most commonly it may take the form of disdain for those of opposite political perspective, to the point of characterization, perhaps indulgence but more likely subtle dismissal.

I count among those I call my friends several with whom I sharply differ on various social and political issues. That does not make me a good person or even a tolerant one. I do so because I have come to know them as people not symbols, or others. I have come to know and experience their essential humanity, seen them act selflessly and in this I believe is the seed of an important observation. When we focus on what is common to us, what unites us with others as opposed to what divides us we transcend alienation. It is fundamentally that simple. The instant we are reminded of what we once knew and felt at birth, we have the capacity to move beyond the artificial boundaries we learned to construct and see each other for better or worse, as humans and not as aliens.

True empathy is not conditional, but universal. It is not reserved for those like us, but extended to all. Only when we feel and act on this can we experience our own humanity and know it in others.

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