Wes: Over the last 20 years, there’s been an increasing concern in adolescent literature regarding empathy, or the lack thereof. These concerns come from a variety of angles — sociological, neurological and psychological — and often address the exposure of teens to mass media. Originally the focus was placed mostly on violent television and movies. Then, as video games and the Internet began to compete for leisure time, and cell phones interconnected everyone, the focus shifted toward those media as the source of underdeveloped empathy. Most recently we’ve seen a series of disturbing situations involving bullying via Facebook and YouTube. Now, anyone’s five seconds of poor judgment or bad luck can run around the globe a million times a week, forever. Moreover, anonymous online free speech is now the norm, something the forefathers could never have imagined.
I’m a great fan of teenagers and I’m hopeful about their role in our future, but some of these trends keep me worried. We covered cyber-bullying way back in 2006, before it became front-page news. I’ve expressed concern about the lack of ethical reasoning in many teens who see stealing as a normal part of life — not because they’re starving on the street, but because someone has something they want. And many current dating patterns aren’t exactly respectful of self or others.
It was thus a welcome moment for me when I took my children to the Coterie Theater at Crown Center last week on a day off from school. Waiting for the show to start we found ourselves surrounded by a full house of junior and senior high school students on a field trip, laughing and talking with a deafening energy.
Then the lights dimmed and the crowd quieted under the watchful eyes of teachers. The second of three short plays was “Flowers for Algernon.” I read the short story as a teen and later the novel, so I knew what I was getting us into. Charlie, a mentally handicapped man, undergoes surgery to triple his IQ to 180. But after a few months, the procedure reverses and he slowly loses all the intellect he has attained. His decline is devastating to watch onstage, and the actor who portrayed Charlie brought depth and meaning to every line.
The stage at the Coterie is a semi-arena and we were on the front row, stage left. Just the right spot to watch half the students react to the play. Football player-sized boys brushed tears in the dark as Charlie desperately struggled with his plight. Girls sat, eyes wide and mouths open, imagining I suppose, what it would be like to lose something so precious as knowledge. The entire room exploded into applause at the end. It was obvious to this trained eye that the kids were deeply moved.
It occurred to me that whatever these teens did in their spare time, in that moment, connecting with this character, they felt a deep sense of compassion. They felt what it was like to be Charlie, and perhaps found something of themselves in him, even as his predicament was so different from theirs. And that is the definition of empathy.
I went home that day greatly encouraged, certain that some field trips are better than others.
Ben: I don’t think human beings ever lose their capacity for empathy, whatever their age. It’s too deeply engrained into our being. When I see someone trip and fall, I think, “Ouch.” If I see a little kid crying, my first thought is, “Sad.” I’ve cried, I’ve fallen, and therefore, I can relate.
If I react differently, it’s because my brain tells me, “That person doesn’t deserve my empathy.” If the person who fell tripped me before, I’m less inclined to feel bad for him. Apart from such exceptions, empathy is a natural reaction, so the only way to lose it is to treat everything as an exception. That’s what people are afraid of. Few are concerned about our lack of empathy for the exceptionally wealthy or criminals. It’s when our exceptions start to include the less fortunate, the innocent, and the oppressed that eyebrows raise.
I do think our list of exceptions is getting longer. Look at the numerous sites that publish videos, pictures, and stories solely to embarrass people we will never know. It’s a common recreation for my age group to sit around and laugh at people humiliated on YouTube for a mistake made while in front of a video camera. I shudder to think how famous I’d become if someone were filming my slip-ups. Still, I’m not worried that empathy will be lost.
My concern is more subtle. Once we decide to empathize, our next thought must be, “What do I do now?” Too many of us are content to just empathize and hope the world will change itself. When we look back on the genocides of the 20th century, we think, “Why didn’t people stop this from happening?” Yet I’m shocked by how easily I can change the channel when I see violence and oppression in the news. As long as I keep a comfortable distance, I can feel secure in ignoring it. This may be partially to the credit of the almighty Facebook, where we can “support a cause” simply by clicking a button and never think about it again, but I’m not concerned with the source. It doesn’t matter if the fire was started by a faulty stove or an arsonist; we must put it out either way.
My advice is to take this advice personally. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd of your generation, but waking up everyone begins by waking up yourself.
Next week: Young children and bad behavior. Does it predict teen behavior?
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.