Cultivating Empathy: An antidote to ignorance

By Siddhartha Singh 2020-12-08

David Foster Wallace, in The Broom of the System, portrays a cantankerous caged bird, ironically named Vlad the Impaler. This bird sees nothing more than the misty yellow blob of its reflection, yet continues to admire itself while biting the hand that feeds it. Through this metaphor, Wallace distills the essence of our current solipsis that afflicts even the most well-intentioned humans. We are programmed to believe that we are the center of the universe. Unfortunately, this belief does not ring true amidst the current pandemic or ever, for that matter. 


While our nurses and doctors battle the pandemic, those lounging on their Lazy Boys are fighting a war on ignorance. Never has the armchair philosopher-activist been so instrumental to a global call to arms, summoned to fulfill his destiny, simply by staying put and doing nothing.


Come to think of it, there is one thing that you can do: Empathize! You can shut down your argumentative brain for a moment and put yourself in a stranger’s stead. Our version of the pandemic has seen a civilizational exodus of migrant laborers from cities. While we have the privilege of household comforts, they grow blisters walking thousands of kilometers on foot. It's a discomforting thought and some of you are already fidgeting in your seats. But you are the leaders of tomorrow, and you owe it to the world and yourselves to inculcate empathy in your work and being.


Empathy is usually the domain of conscious decision. However, when practised regularly, it becomes a matter of sanskar. Simon Baron Cohen, in his seminal work Zero Degrees of Empathy, posits that "empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention." For centuries, great leaders have shown the way by harnessing the power of empathy. As extraordinary as they were, Gandhi's satyagraha, Dr. King's dream, and Buddha's pursuit of moksha are simply exercises in empathy. Sometimes, an exercise in empathy requires you to channel a non-violent rage against the British Empire; sometimes, it is as simple as feeding a hungry cat. But it always carries a bias for action, even in inaction. Like the Mahatma says, "an ounce of practice is worth a thousand words."


Every story, every historical paragon, begins with small steps. A lot of small steps, taken frequently. Action consummates realization. So open your eyes to a different world view, as well as your ears to an opinion you may not initially agree with. Most importantly, remember to walk a mile in another human’s chappal before you criticise them.