Selective Empathy? What the heck is selective empathy?
Driving around one morning before Easter, I heard an NPR story on the radio that caused my heart to sink. The reporter began to talk about a critical shift in American culture that’s being tracked by social scientists: for the past several decades, Americans seem to be losing their appetite for empathy, especially the “walk-a-mile-in-someone’s-shoes Easter Sunday morning kind” of empathy.
Having just participated in Kenilworth Union Outreach agency presentations this week and hearing about all the amazing work that over 39 organizations are doing in our area, this seems hard to imagine, but I’m sure you’ve seen it too. It appears that a certain suspicion of empathy has started to creep in—particularly among (though not limited to) young people. Seeking to understand the “other” point of view and to take the compassionate path has fallen increasingly out of favor. Fear and tribalism have wormed their way into our brains and hearts. More students say “it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective.” Here’s a terrifying statistic: by 2009, by all standard measures, young people on average measured 40 percent less empathetic than those who were studied in the 1960s…
The new rule for empathy seems to be to “reserve it”. It’s not for your enemies or for people who have a different point of view, but for the people you believe are hurt, or you have decided need it the most. It’s empathy, but it’s just for your own team. The social scientists call this “selective” empathy and it’s a powerful force in society today.
But wait! You say…isn’t that form of empathy a direct contradiction to scripture like Galatians 6:2
“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ”? Paul didn’t leave out instructions like “but only if you deem those people worthy” or “but only if they look like me” or “if I know they’re legit.”
If this selective attitude of empathy is wearing on you, turn to the Congregational Care crew at Kenilworth Union Church to restore your faith in true, Christ-centered empathy. Join a monthly Care Team and deliver a meal to someone who’s just said goodbye to a loved one, come to Mid-Day Prayer on Tuesday to ask God’s mercy on all the hurting corners of our lives and in our world, join the Knitting Ministry and create lap robes and bereavement blankets to comfort those healing or grieving. It’s easy, it’s fun to engage with others in this way, and as St. Francis of Assisi reminds us, “it is in giving that we receive.”
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. —Ephesians 4:32
 From National Public Radio’s Special Series, “Civility Wars: the End of Empathy.” By Hannah Rosin, April 15, 2019.