So when we hear the expression ‘I feel your pain’, it’s not just a figure of speech. We are made for this and it happens not just with our loved ones. We are at a critical precipice with technology. Outsiders coming in and observing our society might guess that we have more intimate relationships with our smartphones than we do with our significant others.
Cyberbullying is probably on the rise because it is much easier to inflict harm on people whose pain you never see. It is much harder to have a meaningful conversation if what you’re used to is 140 character tweets and how do you know whether to say do you need for me to come over if what you’ve just gotten is a text that says ‘lousy day’ with an emoticon.
As Jonathan Safran Foer said, ‘When we accept diminished substitutes we become diminished substitutes’. So the good news about empathy is that when it declines it can also be learned. Employers who want to have an engaged and productive workforce need to get tuned in to the people. Patients who don’t feel cared about have longer recovery rates and poor immune function. Students who are disengaged are more likely to drop out, and marriages without empathy are more likely to fail. So empathy matters in every corner of your life.
As the Zulu say not hello but I see you. We all need to see each other to bring out the full potential in others. Most people need to have their specialness reflected back in the eyes of others in order to see it themselves. Everyone in this audience has the power to do this and when we empower others we can collectively come together to bring our best selves to solve the world’s biggest, smallest and most vexing problems. That is the power of empathy.