A deficit of empathy

By Matthew Rigby


That’s how often you should read the comment section on a parenting blog. This is probably true at the best of times, but I think we can all agree, these are not the best of times. 

Like a lot of parents, I’ve recently been navigating being at home with three kids in different grades. I’ve been clapping out syllables with my 10-year-old, assisting my 12-year-old with multiplying and dividing fractions, and instructing my six-year-old in the proper way to hold his pencil. I’m signing into multiple Zoom conferences, Google classrooms, Freshgrade, Epic, ReadTheory, Razkids, Newzella and Zearn accounts (yes, those are all real). I’m also trying to bake bread, make crafts, facilitate my kids reaching out to friends, get outside and limit screen time. 

All while working and trying to keep myself and my family safe from a pandemic.

Some days are bliss. A new concept begins to make sense to your child. An unscripted conversation surprises you in the best possible way. Siblings play well together. The bread rises, and you punch it down with satisfaction. 

Other days are marked by anxiety and frustration. Hours spent on schoolwork with little to show for it. A complete inability to get even the simplest of projects completed. When the novelty of crafts and baking has worn off completely. When you are only going through the motions of normality, and everyone knows it. These days are exhausting.

Recently a writer published an article on a popular parenting site sharing her experience of one of these tiring days at home with her child. It was honest, it was vulnerable, and it didn’t paint her in the best possible light. 

She was destroyed in the comments section. 

Some readers attacked her for complaining about a life marked by privilege. Some patted themselves on the back for their superior upbringing and parenting, taking the opportunity to showcase the ways they have managed this crisis so far. Some derided the writer for allowing her child to become spoiled and run the household. Another chided the writer for writing about a concept so obvious: “Of course parenting is hard!” they scold.

What was universal among so many responses was a complete lack of empathy. Each respondent unable or unwilling to imagine a scenario different from their own. Unable to listen to another’s grief and frustration without expressing judgment. Even those attempting to contribute helpful parenting advice (dangerous, that) came from a place apart, above. Very few seemed willing to accept her vulnerability and meet her in the midst of failure. 

Of course, no one is surprised by this story. People displaying their vulnerability is uncomfortable, and expecting empathy and compassion from strangers could be considered naive and idealistic.

But that is exactly what we are depending on right now. The empathy and compassion of strangers. A deficit of empathy affects more than just the comment section of a struggling parent’s blog. It needlessly puts others at risk and prolongs this crisis.

For the longest time, individuality, competition and self sufficiency have been given much higher stature than seemingly ‘soft’ virtues such as empathy and compassion. The unspoken message has been that seeing another’s perspective is nice and good, but inessential. And now we are in the midst of a crisis that the individual is incapable of addressing. Suddenly, we are being asked to see ourselves as a whole. To do our part, and trust that others will do the same. 

From the beginning of this pandemic we watched the outliers with disdain and fascination. Fistfights over toilet paper and sanitizer. Customers emptying entire meat sections. People stealing boxes of respirator masks from hospitals. Used and discarded masks and gloves littered on the ground for essential workers to pick up. The subtle or complete disregard for social and physical distancing shown by some.

It is easy to make a caricature out of the outliers. Most of us are not getting into fist fights, hoarding supplies or intentionally putting others. But as our province begins to lessen restrictions, and we begin to salivate at the possibility of seeing faces of our friends and family, it’s more important than ever that we strengthen our collective empathy, and remain vigilant. 

Without that empathy, we can’t see the big picture. When I can’t (or won’t) see from another’s perspective, I will make all of my decisions based on my own perceived risk and discomfort. And daily, I want to make those concessions. I want a return to normal.  And as I estimate my risk to be lessened (whether that is true or not), I will make greater and greater concessions to ease that discomfort.

I don’t say this to shame anyone. We’ve all seen an influx of self appointed ‘social isolating police’ pop up online. There is a thin line between reminding people of best practices and social shaming, and it gets traversed daily. We are all making decisions about how to best navigate this crisis with acceptable risk. Some of us are making concessions out of exhaustion, for productivity, for childcare, for mental sanity.

But empathy asks whether I would make those same concessions if I were the one immunocompromised? If I had an underlying lung condition? If my health and safety depended on the vigilance of others? Because when I take a risk that is manageable to me, but not to someone else, it is a failure of empathy. That I cannot, or will not see from another’s perspective. 

I know from conversations with those most at risk that they have not reduced their vigilance. That the steps ahead to reopen are necessary, but terrifying. They cannot afford to pretend that we’ve magically returned to normal, or that this virus is a hoax or a government conspiracy. Denial is not a coping mechanism available to them. To them, denial is deadly.

Perhaps we can begin by admitting that we have a deficit of empathy for a long time now. That whether it is in a comment section or a grocery store, we need to increase our empathy. Now, more than ever. That in the face of threat, we have focused mostly on our individual needs and fears. And that in our conceived scarcity, we have become less generous, even with our concern for others.

As is often the case, we do not know where we are weakest until we are tested. And this is our test. To find the ways to see this crisis through more than just our small perspective. To expand our imagination, our consideration, and our compassion. 

It has been said that we will get through this together. 

This is true. But how we get through it, and who we are together, will depend greatly on our empathy.

Matthew Rigby is a grateful husband to one, father to three. He works as a nurse in emergency care, and writes about making meaning through connecting with the great human narrative. You can find his writings and recordings at somethingfromeverything.com.


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