The Critical American Deficit of Our Time: Empty on Empathy

Nowhere is America’s contemporary deficit in empathy more visible than in the persona of our president. trump personifies the critical state of overgrown American unempathy.

Empathy is true power.

But power without empathy is a cancer to human civilization — and to civility.

Empathy is that virtue, which allows us to put ourselves in others’ shoes. It is NOT to be confused with feeling sorry for others’ plight. It is also NOT the emotion that leads to charity.

Empathy is that virtue, which lets us see the world through the eyes of others. It is NOT only to be invoked in the face of injustice and plight. It is also NOT the source of charity.

Empathy is that virtuous force within humanity that allows us to identify problems, dangers, and injustices and bring the full force of our hearts, minds and bodies to solve them — even though, one’s self may not be affected.

Empathy is NOT a political platform — it is NOT a “liberal vs. conservative” position. It is NOT a mark of a weak intellect or shallow resolve — or small gonads.

Empathy is the virtue that keeps human society civilized. It is the source of our laws and the reason why most people in civil society have been convinced for centuries to abide by them.

Empathy ultimately serves the self — but not in a destructive way. Rather it nourishes the self. In fact, it starts and must start from one’s self — empathy for one’s self is not the same as self-centeredness. Because empathy for one’s self and one’s own experiences grounds the person in solid meaning, in identity and in resolve.

But what happens when empathy is lost? How is it lost? What if an entire civilization or a generation, or a good majority of it, loses this virtue? What does a nation with a deficit in empathy look like? What happens when the most powerful nation on earth becomes deficient in empathy?

The loss of empathy is a cancer to civilization — it is a cancer to the individual. It slowly chips away at individuals, at families, at towns and at entire nations. Like any cancer, the loss of empathy kills!

The loss of empathy inevitably leads to a utilitarian political force humanity has come to know as “fascism”. And when a majority of the people of a democratic nation have little to no empathy, a fascist state is born.

How is empathy lost?

Empathy is lost in the face of traumatic loss.

Empathy is lost when our pain from abuse, from abandonment, from death, from disease, from injustice, from hunger, or from dwindling opportunity and hopelessness in the future is so great we seek to insulate ourselves with material goods and money, with walls, with familiar rituals….with the “materially familiar”.

It takes spiritual power, and true fathers and mothers, or therapists for the heart and soul, to take such pain and transform it into even more powerful empathy — that thing we call compassion. But there seems to be a shortage of such healing forces in our world today.

What replaces empathy lost?

A sharp and stinging awareness of the world’s materialism.

The unempathic person need not be rich. The unempathic person can feel, acutely, either a deprivation or an excess of money - man-made money!

The unempathic person’s only real yardstick, and everything he/she works and acts on, becomes money.

For the unempath, money becomes the idol — and every other symbol and authority figure will be defined strictly by its economic character and success.

Unempathy causes a hunger for money — a thirst for winning material wins, things that only matter on a short term scale.

The current president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is severely deficient in empathy. He personifies the state of American unempathy in the year 2019. The why or how of his person’s empathy deficit, or whether it’s just an actor’s act on TV for his base, is a topic for another analysis — perhaps, for professional psychologists to assess.

But, more importantly for America, Donald Trump’s ascendancy as president is an ominous sign that a large proportion of our society suffers from a potentially deadly deficit in empathy.

The pain of being left behind, the agony of betrayal, the trauma of loss, festering, sometimes self-medicated with alcohol, drugs, and empty nationalist ego, sometimes buried with a claim to “rugged American individualism” has created America’s “fly-over country” — and not just in “fly-over country”, but in the heart of America’s great metropolises and suburbs. The American heartland and heart, have become the burial ground for the American soul’s empathy for the other — but really it’s empathy for the self that has been assaulted and withers. It’s compassion for the self that is dying in America.

Make no mistake, Trump’s presidency is the ascendency of American unempathy. And the rise of unempathic utilitarianism in America will become even more virulent than any previous iterations of fascism — because American power and our capacity to destroy, on an individual and systemic level, is unrivaled today.

Without empathy, America and Americans will not be able to identify or solve any of the world’s substantive problems. With unempathy, America and Americans will become nothing but slaves to our self-made money — and the victims of our society’s utilitarian success. We will build walls. We will let money, not virtue, guide our actions. But most importantly, we will wither under the weight of unempathy for our very selves.

The ascendancy of unempathy, like any other cancer, will lead to demise.

Is it too late to cut out the cancer of unempathy from our American souls?

For my children’s sake, and yours, I hope not!

Hooman Noorchashm MD, PhD is a physician-scientist. He is an advocate for ethics, patient safety and women’s health. He and his 6 children live in Pennsylvania.