Written by Judy Mensch
Empathy is a lost art. Not that I really think it’s an art but it is something that is certainly becoming lost in Western Culture. We live in an “I deserve the best” kind of world: a philosophy that threatens the very foundational principles in Scripture as well as our ability to benefit mankind.
A lot of our advertising and branding points to selfishness and leads us far from empathy and compassion for others. I think that modern advertising paints a picture of society. Of course they do not stand alone in representing our scruples nor are they the only gauge of our egocentricity. But here are some examples of contemporary marketing slogans:
- Häagen-Dazs – Pleasure is the path to joy
- McDonald’s – You deserve a break today
- L’Oréal – You’re worth it
- Tag Heuer – Success. It’s a mind game
- Vodafone – Make the most of now
- Burger King – Have it your way
- Diesel – Be stupid
- Aston Martin – Power, beauty and soul
All of these are indicators of where our adoration lies: in ourselves. Even certain thoughts that seem quite moral and noble play into this. “You can’t help others until you help yourself”: a sentiment that is echoed more times than not when we are feeling inadequate. Thus, empathy is lost and those in need stay in need as we help ourselves.
I recently read about a study that came out of the University of Ohio about Acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol). I know this sounds like a bit of jump, but bear with me. The study showed that those who took Tylenol had their own headache pain dulled but it also dulled any empathy toward those in distress.
In this study, participants from two groups were tested; one group was given a placebo pill, and the other was given acetaminophen. After a while, the groups were each asked to read sad stories of people who were experiencing unhappiness and pain. Each group was then asked to rate the pain of the characters. Those who had taken acetaminophen minimized the pain, while the placebo group had greater empathy for them.
Looking at this in my own crazy little way, I thought – if pain relief also relieves us of empathy then conversely, if we have pain are we more empathetic? Is it possible that we actually need to go through adversity in order to feel empathy for someone who is going through a difficult time?
Now, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would like good things to happen to us. I don’t think that anyone prays for sickness, loss or loneliness. But, difficulties do come and we all experience hardship. And when we do, most of us either ask, “why?” or pray that this agony would be taken from us. Of course, that makes sense.
But how about taking a little wisdom from the Tylenol study. Without hardship we may never be able to truly feel for those in pain, thereby helping them.
In a letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. (Romans 5:3-5)
Let’s look a little differently at our circumstances that make us want to shake our fists at God or at life. C.S. Lewis said, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” I cannot think of a more extraordinary destiny than feeling another person’s pain and then to make his burden a little lighter.
So be careful of too much pain relief. There are too many aching people in the world. Use what hurts to help others.