Picture a nursery filled with new-born babies all lying quietly in their tiny cribs, suddenly one begins to cry feebly and surprisingly one by one the others join in- psychologists call this empathy – which is the capacity to experience someone else’s pain as one’s own and respond in the best way one can.
This same attribute is exhibited by toddlers as well - in the first few weeks of a nursery or a kindergarten class when one child begins to cry and if he or she is not pacified quickly, the other children will join in and raise quite a din–all on account of toddler empathy.
Very young children are usually quite selfish but when they find a fellow being in distress they might decide to part with their favourite toy just to comfort another - especially if she or he has been the cause of this distress but some toddlers are downright altruistic - they stop their play and rush to the aid of a distraught one with a touch, a token or a kind look. It would seem that we humans are quite capable of selflessness and empathy when we start out in life.
And starting with school all the way through college and beyond humans are capable of sympathy- they are capable of compassion, , commiseration, congeniality -and respond with kindness to others' distress- so unlike early childhood we just don’t stop with feeling the pain but translate empathy into direct action to address the problem.
Long lasting friendships are forged through these years and we witness people becoming less and less emotionally dependent on their immediate family and more and more focused on the world outside. Life is rife with numerous examples of kindness – from helping a close friend pay for his college tuition to helping a perfect stranger with a blood donation. Individuals jointly fight for a cause and seek justice. People volunteer when disaster strikes like an earthquake or a tsunami. People even travel to other countries as voluntary aid workers, to participate in disaster management efforts.
But the greatest paradox is that somewhere along the way – even maybe as part of gaining adulthood and becoming successful in life we humans let logic and reason dominate our thinking and we withdraw our gaze little by little from the outer world. Slowly but steadily all of our actions pass through these filters of logic and reason and financial considerations. We summarily dismiss calls to action and social justice as the exuberance of youth.
However this earth that we inhabit has been the site of unspeakable and unimaginable acts of cruelty and violence– we are guilty of the genocide that began with the Holocaust, and continues today in countries in Africa like Darfur for example– the many wars that have wrecked many nations and it would seem that we are guilty of not just perpetrating violence but are also guilty of being silent spectators-– we are guilty of apathy.
We have conveniently turned the Japanese maxim of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil to I will not see the evil, I will not hear the evil and I will not speak out against evil. A social conscience is not the responsibility of the media, the police, the judiciary and organizations like Amnesty International alone but it is also the responsibility of every individual.
John Donne a 17th Century poet, said- “ No man is an island” what he meant was that we are all part of a society and we exist as cogs of a giant human wheel and we cannot ignore the evil that abounds in society as long as we are not affected by it- he says –“any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,”
I would also like to quote a very famous saying attributed to Martin Niemöller a German pastor and theologian
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
Although, in the aftermath of a crisis there is a huge uproar in the media and Arnab Goswami may express his outrage and we all do join in– but people’s memories are quite short lived and every scandal and sensational news quickly fades from public memory and very rarely are perpetrators brought to book. Our social and political apathy makes us live safely cocooned in our own little worlds oblivious to the tragedies taking place around us.
What we need to ask ourselves is does adulthood cause this apathy, this dehumanization or does our humanity simply lie dormant somewhere deep within and can be awakened with the right stimulus.
For all our sakes I do hope that this is indeed the case and that we are definitely capable of the empathy we were capable of even as infants.