Last week Steve Jobs died, my son’s rabbit ran off and one of his former teachers passed away. I handled these events with a somewhat philosophic approach. Jobs was a remarkable man but I’d never met him. I figured the rabbit might come back. And then there was my son’s teacher.
I remember her calling to ask if our son would like a last-minute part in a play, and then her coming over to the house to run lines with him to fast-track getting him ready. That made an impression. Clearly, this teacher was extraordinary.
She’d been suffering with cancer. I watched my brother and several friends die of cancer. It was painful process, as it must have been for our son’s teacher, and my heart goes out to anyone who goes through that, including Steve jobs and his family.
There’s been a lot written about Steve Jobs. One could summarize the guy who made cool computers—and made computers cool—as a man of vision, passion and courage.
Our son’s teacher was a woman of vision, passion and courage, too. She was a passionate pianist, singer and leader, which was obvious to anyone seeing her directing a school concert. Now she’s gone.
It deeply affected our son. After hearing the news he called home, “feeling sick” he said. I understood. I picked him up and he took the afternoon off school. We talked a bit about it. But did I care less? Do we care less as we age?
Well, there’s research that suggests we empathize more as we age. In studies older people register sadness more easily than young adults. Still, there’s not much research available on empathy in children—other than a mention that babies seem to have some form of emerging empathy. As important as empathy is, we don’t know a lot about it.
There are signs that empathy is directly linked to social conditioning. And there is new evidence that we’re becoming less empathetic as a society. There doesn’t seem to be a single cause, though a there are some ideas. For example, researchers at York University in Toronto learned that people who read less fiction are less empathetic, and we’re all reading less fiction these days. OK, not so good.
From a psychological perspective, the late social philosopher Christopher Lasch concluded that “The new patient lacks the capacity to mourn…the strength of his defences, however, makes him resistant to successful analysis...To be able to enjoy life in a process of involving a growing identification with other people's happiness and achievements is tragically beyond [his] capacity...”
He is talking about narcissism and its dramatic rise in modern society, in which image is more important than substance, and wherein self-image becomes more important than self—and certainly more important than “the other,” that is: anybody outside of ourselves.
I would argue that the old are just as susceptible to this spiraling into self-absorbed narcissism as the young. And I would use the Occupy Wall Street protest as an example. The question is often asked by the media establishment, “why exactly are these people protesting and what are their specific demands?” Simply put, what they’re protesting is the narcissistic greed of the top income class of society. And I would have to say that these financial elites are not exactly teenagers. Most of them are middle-aged or older, old even. And the majority of the protesters, who seem to care a lot by the way, are young. So what’s going on?
While older people might feel “sad” about seeing people suffer, and while those feelings of sadness may become stronger as we age, we also lose the passion of youth as we age. When young people care, they care in a passionate, risk-taking and active way, a way that has force. And that scares a lot older people, who value safety and protection over passion and confrontation, however sad they may feel.
This holds true in my own empirical experience. Florida, with its large cohort of old people, is full of road rage and grumpiness—a place typically populated by seniors who are apathetic about political change—unless it affects their fixed incomes. They vote to protect the status quo, in which they are highly invested. Not exactly your Occupy Wall Street rebels.
But if, as the research shows, levels of actual empathy are declining across our society, we’re in trouble. Then it becomes every man and woman for him- and herself, and may the most exploitive transnational corporation and most manipulative media disinformation channel win. And that’s exactly what we’ve just been living through over the last 30 years. Until the financial credit bubble burst.
Now young people are awake and taking to the streets. Adbusters magazine in Vancouver got the original Occupy movement started. Now there’s even an Occupy New Brunswick organization with its next demonstration planned for Fredericton on October 15.
All I can say is thank God we have youth who are less worn down and cynical than we are. Empathy without energy doesn’t amount to much—beyond merely feeling sad.