It has been said that the character of a civilization can be measured by how it treats its weakest members. In the spirit of this holiday season, we often find ourselves thinking about others as we toss coins in buckets next to ringing bells, participate in toy drives, light candles, say prayers, sing songs, and celebrate with friends and family. This year in particular, after the dark, tragic losses in Connecticut, we hold the families (and all those affected) close in our thoughts as we hug our loved ones a little bit tighter. As I reflect on the past year and look forward to the next, I can’t help but wonder: as a society, how well do we take care of one another during the off-season?
Empathy: em·pa·thy (noun)
- Understanding of another’s feelings
- The ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties
A few months ago, high above one of San Diego’s freeways, a man climbed on an overpass and threatened to jump. Rush hour traffic came to a standstill as rescue workers persuaded him to come down safely. The next morning, I heard the same message again and again on several radio stations, on Facebook, and from friends: Why did this crazy fool have to ruin everyone’s trip home? He wanted attention or he wouldn’t have done it during rush hour. And the worst: Why couldn’t he just off himself in the privacy of his own home without bothering anyone?
We are quick to judge. To find blame. We are quick to apply our circumstances and resources to others’ decisions. Maybe the man wanted attention. Maybe he purposely planned ahead and chose rush hour to carry out his suicide attempt. Or maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe, after months of darkness, in a moment of complete despair he made a decision and was too numb to even know the time. What if he tried to get help but lacked adequate healthcare, or did not know how to navigate through a system of red tape? What if he tried talking to people and was met with judgment? What if he tried everything else he knew and simply felt there were no other choices left? Do we really want to write people off because their cries for help don’t make sense to us? Disrupt our lives? Interfere with our belief that people have access to sound reasoning during the middle of a depression?
Maybe somewhere in between being fully functioning and wanting to jump off of high things there is an opportunity for us to take better care of our mentally ill. Maybe we can provide doctors the freedoms to take care of their patients in order to intervene sooner. Maybe we can offer more empathy and less judgment. Maybe we can start to chip away at the social stigmas around depression and other mood disorders that often prevent people from seeking help at all, before it’s too late.
We live in a society filled with an overall sense of individuality, ambition, fear, and protectiveness. But we also live in a society that surprises us every day with people who save other people from subway trains, who work together to lift a car off an accident victim, who help change a flat tire alongside a freeway, who return lost money, who spend a Saturday helping someone move, who share a meal, or who run into burning buildings to save lives. In an age when we have access to communication at our fingertips, is it possible that we can do better than what we are doing when it comes to our weakest members who are mentally ill? Are we afraid that if we express empathy to someone who is having a difficult time that we are somehow enabling them to be depressed? Are we so uncomfortable with negative emotions that we simply can’t tolerate them in others? Or are we, as a culture, lacking a collective rule that tells us what to do or say when there may not be anything to do or say? I can’t help but wonder what kind of civilization we would be if we just showed more empathy. For ourselves. For each other.
We may be a civilization prone to in-fighting, checking Facebook instead of checking in with each other, and watching reality TV rather than creating actual experiences. But perhaps this is not all that we are. If history tells us nothing else, it reveals that despite our darkest tendencies, we, as a civilization are kind. We are adaptable. We are capable of more than closing our front doors and worrying only about ourselves. And so, as time passes into a new year, I am forgoing my usual resolution to lose 5 lbs and resolve instead to approach more circumstances with empathy and an open heart. I am imagining a world where judgment is our first reaction less often, and empathy is our first reaction more often. After all, in the words of William Arthur Ward, “If you can imagine it you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.”
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” – J.K. Rowling
-By Kim Baker (reprinted with permission from author.)