Empathy is dead. Long live empathy!

The other day I was at the grocery store.

It was meant to be like any other day — make sure I get all my groceries as quickly as possible, take deep breaths to handle my general anxiety, and miss out 1 or 2 things because of it by the time I’m at checkout. In other words, a normal day.

Since masks were mandated indoors a year ago, grocery stores everywhere have stationed staff outside to manage queues and ensure face coverings are being worn.

I’m surrounded by some of the nicest (and largest) grocery options where I live in busy Toronto. My neighbourhood is full of parks and brown-stone buildings with century old patinas. I moved here to be close to water and greenery. Generally speaking, the neighbours and families I’ve met have been nothing short of lovely.

I’ve had the pleasure of not facing “anti-mask fanatics” that have graced the cringe-worthy parts of social media.

None of this prepared me for today.

The staff let in an unmasked person behind me.

I repeat. The staff let in an unmasked person. Behind me.

No-one else, including me, stepped in to tell them they should mask up.

Did the person have a health issue that prevented them from wearing a mask like everyone else? Did they have a sufficient enough explanation that merited to be let in? Did their greying hair mean a green light?

After all, there was also a three-year-old running around, smiling through her mask as she dragged her parents along the aisles.

The pandemic has been ravaging the world for over 1.5 years. Sure, despite 1.4 million affected, Canada did well on the global charts with just under 24 500 deaths. Ontario, and Toronto in particular, has just opened up indoor activities after the world’s longest lockdown.

But this was no reason to to decide we were in the clear, was it?

Me and everyone else in the supermarket was masked up — why couldn’t this lone shopper?

When I swivelled around to see if anyone was giving them berth or the stink eye, I had little success.

Throughout my 20-minute shopping experience, my expected “normal” became a battle to clamp down my anxiety and slew of curses flooding my thoughts. As I was checking out, the other shopper was right ahead of me, and due to a missing price-tag on an item I was getting, I was relieved to have my checkout delayed so the shopper could leave first.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. After all, I suffered proudly through both vaccinations. I’m protected enough. This chance encounter was making me question my normally-empathetic self — both in work as a designer, and from what my friends tell me.

With this in mind, I ask myself — what is empathy?

The Empathy Paradox

Imagine yourself walking past a homeless person. What first comes to mind?

Do you judge their lack of hygiene, poor life choices, and quickly walk past if they ask for money? Or do you find some change and drop it into their cup, leaving them with a forced smile?

Or, do you stop to chat and find out what poor cards they got dealt?

Or do you ignore them completely?

I’ll admit — I ignore them most of the time. As I pass them, I feel bad, considering to backtrack and giving them change, wondering how they’d use it, and how homeless they actually are. I think about every time I’ve been attacked, stalked, and called names, both at home and while travelling.

These factors grind my empathy down to a halt. Instead of taking an action, I do nothing.

In The Power Paradox, psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner argues that empathy is a key driver in obtaining power and influencing others.

Empathy is the new soft power that makes leaders, heralds in a generation of inclusivity, and leads others towards to path of least assholism.

Empathy can also be self-centred, egocentric by design and manipulated to influence others towards harmful decisions.

Even if few question its necessity, it is easiest to show when convenient.

As if on a timer, it’s most convenient to those in power.

Convenient Empathy

In the wake of racist violence against minorities, more people are all hands-on-phones, ready to share news, donate, spread the word. The endorphins kick in because as we don our do-gooder hats and fight against social injustices from the comfort of our homes.

How much of this frenzy is driven by actual understanding of those in need?

Empathizing from the comfort of our social media identities and like-minded circles is enough. The world today has too many power structures to navigate, and the average person doesn’t have time or interest to dig deep.

Carly Lewis puts forth a compelling argument about the responses to the #MeToo movement. She says, “Our warm embrace of all people who have suffered across the spectrum has indeed come at the expense of clarity, which is vital for progress”.

It took over a year to convict George Floyd’s killer. During this time, the pandemic raged on, with countries like New Zealand containing its spread successfully while others like India let thousands of citizens die. Then, the Sheikh Jarrah conflict happened — what started as evictions turned into war, where missiles were fired on unarmed civilians. Recently, the British royal family sparked a debate on racism by their treatment of Meghan Markle. In Myanmar, the military coup declared a one-year state of emergency, detaining leaders and protesters.

What would change if empathy wasn’t so convenient?

Empathy and Effort

Calling in sick to work. We’ve all been there.

Let’s shift the perspective. Your coworker calls in sick. How do you respond?

If they have a close working relationship, do you check-in often and make sure they’re taking care of themselves? If they’re not close, do you wish them well and get on with your day as usual?

Now, let’s shift the perspective back to us.

How would you feel if someone assumed that you were faking your sickness?

I know I’d get mildly offended at best and furious at worst.

My assumptions kick in as my work habits are questioned, and setting them aside is telling my entire limbic system to take a chill pill. In other words, it’s too much effort.

Using this thought process, it is convenient to ignore the lived experiences of the person who considered that I don’t work hard enough. Setting aside a trove of previous experience to react in a calm manner is giving cognitive dissonance my brain’s master key. After all, I’m the victim, right?

What would happen if I instead asked why they thought that way?

Enough empathy! Just be excellent to each other!

I think empathy is essential. The world needs more of it.

That being said, let’s be honest with ourselves. Among all the good that does happen in the world, bad news wins over the headlines. Not only are they more interesting, ‘doomscrolling’ is addictive. It can trigger a person’s empathy for a sliver of good news within all the bad, or dull the senses towards more negativity.

In Canada, nurses are leaving after 16 months of the pandemic. Worn-down by workload, poor wages and worsening mental health, these are the same people whose contributions and names have been celebrated throughout social media.

Empathy fatigue is real. We can only care about others so much before we turn inwards to care for ourselves.

To other introverts, highly-sensitive people, and neuro-divergent folk out there, trying to figure the right way to be empathetic can be a tug-of-war with being openly vulnerable to others. Being vulnerable is hard enough for the average joe, doing so when it takes up a majority of one’s emotional energy and having to share it is an uphill climb.

So, what is empathy?

While there are scenarios where convenient empathy is enough, showing honest empathy takes time, energy and a challenging self-awareness. To me, there are no right or wrong answers. I’m a keyboard warrior who discusses it freely, yet struggles to put it into practice. I acknowledge that questioning is only the first step. What would have changed if I approached the unmasked person? That’s for me to find the courage next time.

So, I ask, what is empathy to you?

Longtime traveller, UX explorer and chilli lover. INFJ.