A Failure of Empathy: Barriers to the Inner Ground of Love

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We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.
Sherry Turkle

I woke up on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to a horrific story of a hit and run accident that had taken the life of a young woman just blocks from where I live. A neighbor had awakened early in the morning to find a 30-year-old woman dead and bleeding in his driveway where she had been thrown by the car that hit her. The dead woman’s mother, like the rest of us, had been left to wonder why the driver of the car had not stopped to render aide. She could not help but anguish over the thought that her daughter might still be alive if the driver had stopped. As of this writing, no one knows why the driver did not stop. It would be easy to condemn this driver of heartlessness and cruelty, but of course we just don’t know and it only adds to the tragedy to try to make ourselves feel better by vilifying another.

The deeper questions that occurred to me were, what is it about the culture we live in that makes it possible to ignore the suffering of others? What is it about our technologically superior culture that makes it easy for us to dehumanize others? In other words, how is it that we often fail at empathy, which is certainly one of the essential qualities of our humanity?

We know that our postmodern culture is characterized primarily by consumerism and the speed made possible by advances in information and communication technology. Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT has a new book out entitled, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. In it she states, “In corporations, among friends, and within academic departments people readily admit that they would rather leave a voicemail or send an email than talk face-to-face. Some who say ‘I live my life on my Blackberry’ are forthright about avoiding the ’real-time’ commitment of a phone call. The new technologies allow us to ‘dial down’ human contact, to titrate its nature and extent.”

An article published in the New York Times last year on the hazards of our addiction to technology, followed the habits of one family who by their own admission were addicted to technology. The wife in the story complained that her husband “can no longer be fully in the moment.” And Clifford Nash, a communications professor at Stanford “thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room. The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other. It shows how much you care. Empathy is essential to the human condition.”

The market place values of our consumer driven culture also block empathy by conditioning us to see each other as just another product on the shelf for our consumption. So we learn to objectify each other rather than see each other as subjects sharing the same desires and deep values.

Did consumerism and addiction to technology cause the driver in the hit and run accident to leave another human being to die alone in the dark? Not necessarily, but I think they are both barriers to the “inner ground of love” spoken of by Thomas Merton and mystics throughout the ages.

Contemplative practice can be a powerful antidote for our addictions to technology and consumption. Sitting meditation causes us to slow down and allows us to sink deeply into our true selves—the inner ground of love where separation does not exist. For as Thomas Merton stated, If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love and nowhere else will I find myself, the world, and my brother and sister in Christ. It is not a question of either-or but all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and ‘purity’ but of wholeness, wholeheartedness, unity, and of Meister Eckhart’s gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.