America’s Empathy Deficiency

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Fourm on September 11, 2006

Thanks to my friend Randy Shadoe for passing along the video of Kyra Phillips and for our many enjoyable conversations and correspondences that keep me on my toes!

You too may have seen this one. The President is giving a speech to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and something goes terribly wrong in the CNN sound department. Suddenly we, the viewing audience, are hearing CNN anchor Kyra Phillips in the bathroom. We hear the zip of a garment, the flush of a toilet, and a conversation in which Ms. Phillips dishes some dirt on her sister-in-law.

It wasn’t long before this behemoth of a technical blunder was a momentary cultural sensation as video of the mishap bounced around cyberspace. To her great credit, Kyra Phillips went on Letterman to read a self-deprecating top ten list of excuses for what went wrong.

When I first saw the clip with Kyra Phillips’ private moment drowning out the President’s somber platitudes I laughed. It was great fun until the rusty cog wheels of my recollection began to turn, and through the fog of nearly twenty years of memory I recovered a bit of forsaken knowledge: I went to college with Kyra Phillips. We attended an off-campus program together, living in a house in San Francisco with fifteen other students for a semester. We weren’t exactly soul-mates, but she was nice. I liked her.

In a moment, my glee at witnessing a stranger’s embarrassment turned to shame: I was laughing at the misfortune of a person I once had known as a friend. Mine was failure of empathy. It shouldn’t have taken a memory of erstwhile friendship to awaken a sense of compassion for the humiliation of another human being. Everyone who suffers shame is someone’s friend, lover, relation.

I’m not alone in my empathetically-challenged response to the misfortunes of others. This is an American problem. We think it’s great fun to watch our fellow citizens make fools of themselves on national TV, and if the humiliation involves a snarky English judge berating talentless would-be celebrities, so much the better. We don’t seem to care that much of our most popular entertainment comes at a great emotional price for those whose bumbling mistakes we so gleefully consume.

But it’s worse than that. The American empathy deficiency doesn’t just make us unkind. It makes us dangerous. Our national lack of empathy has enabled the American people to sit idly by while millions suffer pestilence, war, and famine in sub-Saharan Africa. Without empathy we gave our nodding approval as Lebanon and Gaza were bombed back to the stone age this summer. Being empathetically challenged we forgot the deep sadness of 9-11 and sang “God Bless America” as our President directed the military to drop bombs the size of dilapidated urban elementary schools on innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. We seem unable to remember that the victims suffer as we did and that the survivor’s grief is as acute as our own.

Our nation faces a moral crisis that has nothing to do with homosexuality, stem cell research, or any of the other politically expedient moral causes du jour. In entertainment as in war, we’re forgetting to see the humanity of strangers. We’re not loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. The world suffers for our lack of empathy, and I know we can do better.

After watching on my computer the unfortunate exposure of Kyra Phillips’ private moment, I walked to my favorite Chinese restaurant hoping that a large plate of beef chow fun would help me clear my mind and organize my thoughts for Sunday’s sermon. It didn’t work. In the dining room a television was tuned to CNN, and there was my old friend Kyra, talking about the weather and the state of the world.

So I lifted a cup of oolong tea in her honor. Kyra Phillips reminded me to see a human face in everyone who suffers, whether that person is an anchor on the TV news or an Iraqi orphan. Thank you, Kyra, for helping me remember.

6 thoughts on “America’s Empathy Deficiency

  1. Hi Ben, To your prophetic writing I’d add that M. Theresa saw Jesus’ face in the face of all who suffer. It fits well with your seeing a human face on the face of those who suffer. Practical mysticism, I think she called it. Your writing is wonderful. Love, m

  2. An eye for an eye my friend. President Bush did what he thought was right. You cannot reason or show empathy for the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The bombing of Afghanistan was exactly what this country needed at the time. God helps the man who helps themselves. Well we must defend. There has not been attack on US soil since are attacks in the Middle East. The world may suffer for our lack of empathy…but we dont.

  3. Grant,

    Thanks for the post.

    Even if you cannot feel empahty for members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, can you feel empathy for the tens of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi citizens who are neither members of the Taliban nor of Al Qaeda who have died, been wounded or bereft as a result of our attacks?



  4. Ben,
    This is a beautiful piece, and something I have thought a great deal about. The level of vitriol I see and hear and experience from so many Americans (myself included, some days) astonishes me. It has become easier to hate than to empathize, and I wonder whether our government is reflecting us, or we’re reflecting them. Where does all this anger come from?
    Thank you for writing about this,

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