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Modernity: the Decline of Empathy and Compassion

Abdu'l-Missagh Ghadirian | Oct 13, 2022

PART 1 IN SERIES How to Build a Compassionate Civilization

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Abdu'l-Missagh Ghadirian | Oct 13, 2022

PART 1 IN SERIES How to Build a Compassionate Civilization

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

We live at a time in history when material civilization has overshadowed spiritual civilization. The Baha’i Faith aims to re-adjust that imbalance.

With the advancement of science, we have witnessed an explosion of knowledge and unprecedented technological progress, including digital communication and the rise of social media. This material progress has brought prosperity, wealth, and modernization to humanity – but we have not become proportionally more happy, empathic, united, or caring. 

Rather, many people have become materially richer but spiritually poorer and more decadent.

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The Dalai Lama said “Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Researchers have shown that social media and digital technology have had a negative impact on those necessary aspects of our daily lives by shortening our attention spans and distracting us from involvement in the more meaningful and essential aspects of life.  

In one outcome, some people have become more indifferent to the suffering of others due to a decline in empathy and compassion. The broad and pervasive influence of social media and technology, important as they are, has adversely affected our desire and capacity to express empathy and good will toward the plight of the marginalized, the sick, and the destitute. No wonder, then, that despite the remarkable benefits of modernity, we experience increasing loneliness, isolation, discontent and depression in many parts of the world.  

Baha’u’llah wrote “… the purpose for which mortal men have, from utter nothingness, stepped into the realm of being, is that they may work for the betterment of the world and live together in concord and harmony.

Empathy and compassion, the most noble characteristics of human reality, are fundamental in interpersonal relationships. They represent essential ingredients in fostering cooperation and creating fraternity and unity, especially in the field of healing and medicine. The role of empathy is likened to an “emotional bridge” that connects individuals to one another and reinforces their sense of humanness.  The physician and author Helen Riess, in The Science of Empathy, said “Our capacity to perceive and resonate with others’ suffering allows us to feel and understand their pain. The personal distress experienced by observing others’ pain often motivates us to respond with compassion.”

Responding with Compassion

The definition of compassion, wrote Emma Seppal in Compassionate Mind, Healthy Body

… is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering.”  It is to be noted that compassion is rooted deeper in the brain than empathy and there is a sense of intentionality and motivation associated with it.  A difference also exists between empathy and sympathy, the latter characterized by an understanding of a feeling.  Empathy, on the other hand, involves a person’s experience of another’s feelings.  Finally, compassion, a deeper experience of another’s pain, goes beyond empathy and sympathy.

Compassion, an authentic emotional response to human sorrow and suffering, happens without expectation of benefit or reward. A multi-dimensional phenomenon often triggered by the suffering of others, it may also be accompanied by a sense of forgiveness, although this is not always the case.  Compassion may cause a person to arise to help others, even in life-threatening situations such as fires, storms, and earthquakes. 

Compassionate first responders who rush to help and save lives risk everything. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, with no treatment or vaccine yet available, millions of health care providers such as doctors and nurses risked their own lives to save the lives of their patients. Some of them perished in the line of duty.

RELATED: How to Create an Ever-Advancing Civilization

Teaching Compassion

Do we all have the capacity to be compassionate? The Baha’i teachings say we do. In his book Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha said “Capacity is of two kinds, innate and acquired.” Often, researchers have found that compassion is a phenomenon that has evolved and adapted itself in the interest of human survival. However, it is also a spiritual capacity that can be taught to children by parents, role models, and educators.  

Empathy is complex construct that consists of two components: one is a cognitive or intellectual recognition of the existence of another being. The other is an emotional component – a capacity that enables a person to perceive and resonate with the emotional feelings of others.  While in the past it was assumed that empathy was an innate trait, recent studies show that it is also likely to be a learned behavior. A phenomenon called “self-empathy” exists as well – it refers to a capacity to take care of one’s own well-being. If personal well-being is neglected, for example, by a health professional, he or she may be unable to empathize with patients or others.

The concept of empathy and its meaning was first introduced in the 19th century in Europe by aestheticians. In German it was called “Einfrühlung” which means the “emotional knowing” of a work of art from within by the emotional resonance emanating from it. Later, psychologist Theodore Lipps expanded this concept to signify “feeling one’s way into the experience of another.” According to Helen Reiss, the renowned philosopher Martin Buber added deeper texture to the concept of empathy, clarifying it as a human concern for the feeling of other individuals.

When Compassion is Unwarranted

However, although empathy and compassion are praiseworthy human qualities, circumstances do exist in which treating people with compassion is unwarranted and may even have dangerous consequences.  When an adversary is a ruthless aggressor with a history of brutality and violence, offering compassion would be like adding fuel to the fire by encouraging that person’s destructive behavior. This is the negative side of empathy and compassion. During wars between nations and violence among individuals, empathy and compassion among those fighting decline to the lowest level, and countless innocent people are killed or disabled because of political strife and aggression. Abdu’l-Baha wrote that: 

… the Kingdom of God is founded upon equity and justice, and also upon mercy, compassion, and kindness to every living soul. Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind — except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before.” 

While Abdu’l-Baha reminds us, Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch; be ye compassionate and kind to all the human race,” he also comments, “Compassion shown to wild and ravening beasts is cruelty to the peaceful ones – and so the harmful must be dealt with.

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