You Learn Empathy From Seeing It In Action

I read recently that the number one skill today’s child will need for the future is empathy. In my time, it was a second language.

Yesterday, Alan mentioned that he’d started to encounter more and more articles concerned with working from bed – what to wear, how to exercise, what accessories one might need. It may sound crazy to (some of) us, but we’re not children of today, who will most likely not need to travel for work or to see a rock concert or in order to eat real French food.

Who among us – pre Cuisine de France, that is – ever got to eat a croissant? I still remember my first. It was delicious and hot and buttery, procured from a tin and par-baked by my Auntie. This all happened in England, obviously, when England was very different and had loads of very different stuff we all coveted – like menthol cigarettes, posh crisps and Marks & Spencer. Who among our parents’ generation had even heard of a croissant when they were young? They were too busy trying to garner some kind of education in order to attain work opportunities beyond the land, where the need for manual work was dwindling. Soon, even here in the quiet seeming-sleepy Burren, no doubt one will be able to order a croissant of choice, using an app, and it will be dropped ‘PLOP!’ on a plate from a drone. I kid you not – the technology is already there! Particularly in the age of Covid, we’ve discovered that very little cannot now come to you via your tablet or your phone. And doing it all from bed will certainly appeal to some.

So, it’s safe to say that in a couple of generations we’ve moved from being a population whereby a day’s work involved a lot of physical graft and potato growing/cooking/eating within a society which was relatively rural and isolated, to a generation of people who work primarily using our heads, theoretically from our beds, with the entire world at our fingertips. It feels a little like our humanity – our heart, mind and soul – is slipping away.

It gets worse, because we all know what happens next. We’ve seen it play out in various films and now, in the same way we speak on camera phones just like The Jetsons, life looks set to imitate art. The smart phones are getting smarter – they remember the way you like your croissant and where to order it from – and we find ourselves knee-deep in the age of artificial intelligence, within which no empathy exists. Because, even with their vast cyber brains, a computer will never be able to understand or generate a sense of empathy. That is uniquely human.

This is all just another part of our evolution.

Not so long ago, Ireland was a place where empathy was rare. The Mother & Baby Homes epitomise a time of deep-seeded self preservation. Where individuals and families relied on an external moral compass (the Church) for instruction on how and whom to love. If you wandered off the path of perceived respectability you were shunned and cast out because being part of the pack was essential. Ireland, even into the 1980s, was a harsh, harsh place where many families survived from pay packet to pay packet. Electricity, indoor plumbing, free education all landed into this country over the course of the twentieth century, gradually giving more people the breathing space to get out of survival mode, to look around and start to wake up. I believe there was so little empathy in evidence around Ireland for much of the twentieth century because so few had the scope for it. It was survival of the fittest in what truly was a different time. And let’s not pretend we are perfect now. We may finally have learned to accept our own – but those in direct provision; members of the travelling community; the elderly; those stuck in a spiral of addiction, of homelessness, of poverty; women, still; people of colour, still… – all too often we retreat in order to mind ourselves and our own patch. Clutching onto self-preservation with not nearly enough empathy.

From basic survival mode, we saw parts of the Western World jump to the age of ambition and getting ahead. When scarcity was less, it became eat or be eaten. People like Donald Trump, the ultimate manipulator and misogynist, the supreme greedy-guts, could succeed in becoming the President of the United States. We all know a Donald – you may have gone to school with one or work with one or be related to one. They’re the person telling you not to take it so seriously, it’s only a joke. They cheat but never seem to get caught. They are self-absorbed and, in general, just don’t care. But we’re starting to call them out for who they are, because being a bully is no longer seen as ‘better’ or ‘stronger’. We are learning – slowly, gradually – to be braver in the face of intolerable behaviour.

So that brings us to today. Where Joe Biden is the new President of the Free World – swooping in like a beloved father-figure, seemingly dripping in empathy and wanting to put everything right. And the Mother & Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Report, however flawed, has painfully dragged us into a public mass reflection on our lack of empathy as a people, hopefully ingraining it as a trait we must commit to living by, or risk it all happening in some form again.

And this is all so important for the next generation, for the children whose finest triumph will be exercising empathy in the face of a technologised future. You see, you don’t learn empathy from a curriculum or by going to mass or seeing it on a screen. You learn empathy from seeing it in action. In our leaders, in how a society reacts to wrongs. Most importantly, in our homes and every-day encounters.

Let’s wake up and get out of bed. Before the computers, with their lack of empathy, tell us we no longer can.

Our humanity depends on it.

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