The empathy gap

Usually late afternoon holds a quick round of activity for me. In preparation for the hour or so sandwiched between work and home I mentally map out…

Usually late afternoon holds a quick round of activity for me.

In preparation for the hour or so sandwiched between work and home I mentally map out the errands that need to be done before the end of the day.

I try then to link the dots in the most step-efficient way possible as I trend north and west through downtown Whitehorse towards home base.

Intent on the course I have laid out, I can be at times oblivious to the fellow Yukoners similarly bound on their rounds. A fellow brought me up short, though, earlier this week.

He stopped me mid-stride and said that he needed to talk to me. It seems a problem had come up in his life and $10 would help solve it.

Broken from my narrowly focused routine, I flipped immediately into a problem solving mode. What had happened? What community sources could help?

After a couple of minutes of listening to my opinions and prescriptives he huffed off with a few of my coins in hand muttering “you’re beginning to sound a lot like them.”

Who were the ‘them’ that frustrated him? Were they just folk in an office following the regulations they were bound by?

Did he think he had been denied the benefits he felt entitled to because an overworked staff person just didn’t have the time to really explain his options to him?

Or was the ‘them’ a composite of teachers, social workers, police and other authority figures in his life?

I don’t know. All I do know is that my street corner counseling failed to break through the empathy gap.

Empathy comes from the Greek en + pathos or in suffering.

To feel what others feel, to enter into their suffering marks a key challenge in building a compassionate society.

All the great spiritual sages across history preached a spirituality of compassion and empathy.

“The only way you could encounter what they called ‘God,’ ‘Nirvana,’ or the ‘Way’ was, according to Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation, the beginning of our religious traditions, “to live a compassionate life.”

Armstrong exams a key period in human history around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. when the spiritual foundations of all the great world religious traditions were laid down.

Calling this time the Axial Age she notes that “all the great traditions that were created at this time are in agreement about the supreme importance of charity and benevolence, and this tells us something important about our humanity.”

Karen Armstrong argues that our spiritual ancestors believed “if people behaved with kindness and generosity to their fellows, they could save the world.”

Do we have that same faith? Today, we have “to rediscover this Axial ethos.”

“In our global village,” according to Armstrong, “we can no longer afford a parochial or exclusive vision.” Our empathy must encompass the world.

We do have an empathy gap to overcome locally, nationally and globally.

From the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, community service organizations like Rotary to the Social Justice clubs at Vanier and F.H. Collins Secondary Schools we have a whole range opportunities to become involved in closing that gap.

There are no simple answers but addressing the unfolding tragedies around us demand our empathy, learning to see the world from other’s points of view.

Starting from that perspective, together we might just find the needed solutions to what ails our communities and our world.

The French Catholic Parish of Whitehorse invites all to a concert by Robert Lebel at Sacred Heart Cathedral at 4th and Steele this Sunday, October 29th at 3 p.m. For more information call Father Claude Gosselin at 393-4791.

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