“Before money, people didn’t barter but gave and received as goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older systems, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.” – Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The initial developmental stages of life occur quickly, without any reprieve from all of the change. From loud cries to the first words, the slow shift from crawling to walking, and up to the mad, strange rush of the teenage years when the world pushes as intensely from within as without, learning comes at every turn.
Young children may be innocent and honest – and naive about the constructs we’ve built into our civilized world – but they are also self-absorbed, and less aware of what it means for others to feel as they do. It isn’t until around the age of two that they begin to understand what it is to engage in empathetic acts, and later, when they feel what it is to have empathy for others – whether it’s their sibling who might be sick or a friend who has lost a favourite toy.
There are many different bridges to developing empathy, some that occur in the moment and others that stretch out for longer periods of time. In my first year of college, I volunteered to visit patients at a local hospital in the gentle care ward. Initially, I didn’t have a thorough grasp of what I was getting into, but within a few weeks, I began to see what the people I was visiting were dealing with each day. As a young person with a sense of the infiniteness of life, I recoiled against it.
For two hours a week, I would sit behind a keypad-locked door that was there to keep the residents within the ward, and I too would feel like I was trapped. In illness, there can sometimes be reprieves and improvements, but for the people I met who struggled with Alzheimer’s and dementia, there would only be better days and moments; memories and many of the fundamental elements of reason were being lost. I remember seeing pictures on the wall that a man had painted, a man who – as I stood beside him – was unable to form a sentence; he who had had an artist’s gift, an inward eye that he’d once been able to articulate.
I felt terrible for the people it was happening to, but mostly I felt afraid of what it might mean for myself. Would I lose my capacities before life came to a close? Would the end of my life come without me knowing it was happening? I certainly used some part of my empathy in that time, but mostly I felt terrified of what it said to me about the frailty of humanity, how tenuous our existence was.
In moments like these, like the three year old who sees their friend cry, there is an opportunity to go beyond self-pity. It is when we see things from the ground, and really engage in the struggles of others as they are, that we can begin to empathize. Unfortunately, empathy as a language in our culture seems to have little currency. Where it is convenient, oftentimes, we can give, but where it cuts into our sense of being – our own individuality – it is more difficult to digest.
The recent struggle towards a passable health care bill in the United States has put this concern front and center. While there have been a number of incarnations of this bill, all in an attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act, the calculations are staggering. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the latest proposed bill would leave 22 million more Americans without health insurance in 2026 than there are today. Worse yet, Federal Medicaid would be cut back 25% by 2036, leading the elderly and disabled with far fewer resources for well being.
From a purely financial perspective, it is easy to see why many consider health care an entitlement, but it is the vantage point of our society that legitimizes such a question. The ties that bind us together are often told as those of nationality or economy, but across the board the true unifying principle is empathy. When we reject it, we turn backward to that 2-year old on the brink of perception that doesn’t want to understand the needs of others. We become the person who fears, and fears our own self, resulting in an inability to show empathy.
To calculate the statistics of those in need is one thing, but it’s quite another to understand what those realities are to live through and how they’re arrived at. Those who – through wealth or power – are far removed from the conditions of other people’s lives likely think of themselves as invulnerable and inhuman. They, perhaps like I tried in those days, imagine themselves always outside of those keypad-locked doors, made iron and unsusceptible. For a teenager, it may be a folly, but for an adult, it is cowardly and unacceptable.