On human empathy: How deeply do you care about complete strangers?

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I’ve been wanting to write something about the New York Times article, “The Dutch Mourn Flight 17’s Victims in Their Own Sober Way,” ever since I read it three weeks ago. The piece discussed how and why we mourn or empathize with certain events; how humans emotions are limited by the “distance” or “connection” to those impacted. Specifically, the article spoke about the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over the Ukraine and how the Dutch reacted to the tragedy.

I’ve been thinking much about how much and how deep I should care. There are terrible things happening all the time, all over the world – so as an inhabitant of the Earth, where does my emotional responsibility start and end?

Of course we’re sad when family passes, but there’s conditions there, too; the closer the relative, the longer it takes us to heal. When we hear about our high school friend, whom we we haven’t seen in 15 years, recently died of cancer, we feel bad, but ten minutes later we’re going about our day again.

And why do we care more when people die from our own country, and not other countries? It might be because collective identity affects our ability to mourn others:

“…But is it really logical for the Dutch person to feel more for his 193 dead countrymen than, say, for the four Belgians and four Germans who were also on that flight? For a Dutchman, do 200 dead strangers call for greater dismay than 200 dead Iraqi or Afghan strangers killed in a bombing? To reply in the affirmative would be to fly in the face of humanism.The Dutch people killed on the flight did not die because they were Dutch…”

On my Facebook, I was annoyed that a few of my (non-Malaysian, non-Dutch) gay friends decided to share in Malaysia Flight 17’s pain only after they learned that an AIDS researcher was on board. I doubt they would have found it tragic enough to share otherwise. I asked myself: “Should I be bothered?” and “Is it unrealistic to expect others’ pain to be equal to strangers?”

“The sad thing about mourning is that it really is quite unshareable, that it involves an extremely individual emotion. People have the right not to show their emotions and not to share them.”

True, but there’s a lot more that goes into sharing emotions than just black/white decision making. A person’s physiological makeup, their upbringing, culture, goals, and prejudices (racism, xenophobia) all impact how “far” they can/choose to care.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to expect everyone to care about everything all the time, but I do believe the more we’re able to share our emotions and attempt to empathize with those the furthest away from our reality, the better off we all will be.

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