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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A lack of empathy

I've always been fascinated by characters in books who have an empathic bond with each other- it's probably why my first book naturally featured the concept of lifemates. It was no surprise then, that I've become obsessed with the show 'Sense8' on Netflix, which features a cadre of eight people all over the world who can share thoughts, sensations, skills, and emotional support through a bond that transcends distance and language.

One of the characters said in an episode that he felt their gift was once more common, but humans had found a way to breed it out because it hindered the one thing that humans do best-  it's easier to kill when they feel nothing.

It made an impact on me. How could we possibly hurt another human being as easily as we do now, if we could feel emotions and see through their eyes of others how much pain we inflict? Offhanded, passive aggressive comments. Deliberate emotional manipulation. Domestic violence. Racism and oppression. Warfare.

Many writers have explored this theme. For the most part, the consensus is that species who have managed to develop a sense of empathy are peaceful and at harmony with themselves and others. Trouble usually comes when a less sensitive species who has not developed this gift moves into the neighborhood. The empathic race is inevitably on the losing end of the conflict.

In the series 'Sense8' these gifted individuals are hunted down and experimented upon, treated as dangerous fugitives. There are obvious parallels drawn in the series in our society: racism, poverty, prejudice, the denial of equal rights to same-sex partners to see their loved ones in intensive care. These eight characters face all of these things in addition to persecution for being something a little more than human.

I have often noted with despair that the trait of empathy is indeed being bred out: that people have somehow come to believe that compassion makes people weak. The drive to succeed, to be right at all costs, to defend our own rigidly held beliefs has become more important than the welfare of the fellow inhabitants on this planet.

It makes me very sad that things as small as the amount of melanin in one's skin, whether we believe or don't believe in a higher power, or check red or blue boxes on election day cause such dissent among human beings. Indeed, there are some who ridicule people like me as "bleeding liberal", "hippie tree hugger" because I am more a humanist than anything: I feel that our primary reason for existing is to take care of each other. Heaven forbid that we do that. It might force us to feel something uncomfortable.

Without empathy, it becomes impossible to care for others, yet the same individuals will complain bitterly that nobody helps them out. It's hard to do when it isn't encouraged by society. Movements like the random acts of kindness show us that empathy is still there, but we've fallen out of practice. We need reminders to be decent human beings.

Human beings need reminders to be human. If that isn't irony, what is?

I'll continue to look forward to this show for the fulfillment of that fascination I have with human connection that transcends speech, religion, sexual preference, race, or geography.

And I'll mourn the fact that it's still considered science fiction.