Humility and Empathy

The coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, and during one of those on-the-street TV interviews, I heard a couple of comments from everyday people that stuck with me. The first one was in response to the question, “Do you generally wear a mask in public?” The reply: “I’m not going to wear a mask. It’s a free country. I’m free to do what I want. I’m responsible for me, not others.”

The second comment responded to the question, “To prevent the spread of the virus, will you cancel plans to travel and visit family during the upcoming holidays?” The answer: “Life is short. Elderly members of my family could be gone next year. I will not cancel my holiday gatherings because this could be my last one with all of them.”

The thing that struck me about both these replies was the emphasis on “Me,” “My wishes,” and, “The hell with everyone else.” Maybe these people felt just fine living in their world of self-preoccupation; but their comments reminded me how important a dose of humility can be, not only when coping with personal stress, but also in developing a social conscience.

Stress can evoke a lot of troublesome emotions – fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy – that make life unpredictable and uncomfortable. A common reaction is to think it’s all about you, and life is being very unfair. You descend into self-pity, and seek sympathy from others. When that doesn’t work, you turn to self-criticism, which tears at your self-esteem. A sense of helplessness is not far behind, and now you are vulnerable to depression. The foundation for depression is definitely there:

Self-doubt:      “I don’t have the courage and strength to change and recover.”

Self-blame:      “I should have done things differently; this whole mess is my fault.”

Self-pity:         “I have been victimized and I deserve sympathy from others.”

The thing to note in these comments is that they are self-centered, which makes effective coping very difficult. When you inject some humility into the picture, however, coping becomes more manageable. You don’t allow yourself to act like you deserve better; you don’t insist that others hop on your pity train; you don’t get irritated because the corners of your world are not soft; you realize that life is not all about you, and you become more receptive to thinking about others.

Humility allows you to go “beyond yourself,” to face your troubles directly, and to interact with others who are also hurting. Only with humility will you be able to see the importance of reaching out to others with problems similar to yours; only with humility can you understand the effect you are having on others; only with humility can you become “other-oriented” rather than “self-oriented”; only with humility can you relate to others with empathy.

Empathy for others is built on your humility. Why is empathy important? The answer is simple: When you react to others with empathy, you use your own difficulties to reach out to another afflicted with similar difficulties, which provides you with insight into both your problems, and others’ problems. This process occurs in support groups. When a member shares pain and suffering with the others, they identify with that member. That identification allows them to relate to the co-member in a mutually-beneficial give-and-take relationship that profits both parties.

When humility is present, empathy allows you to understand others in the context of their needs, not yours. That understanding allows you to focus your actions around human values and a social conscience, and to act in the service of moral principles. But, that empathetic understanding of another also provides you with insight into your own issues. Both of you benefit, both of you discover that you are not alone, and both of you take a fruitful step to healthier adjustment.

American society is in a time of massive self-preoccupation. People seem ill-prepared to accept the reality of variability in what is right and what is wrong. Bewildered and frustrated, they reject accountability and retreat into the comfort zone of their own needs. This retreat makes them more dependent and passive, incapable of critical thinking, and vulnerable to false messages. As their sense of self crumbles, their values and purposefulness fade away, and they fail to see how self-destructive their emotion-based actions have become.

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