Does Empathy Stem from a Lived Experience Alone?

By Shruti Pushkarna

I almost didn’t write this piece. In fact my mind was totally blank. No ideas. Zilch. Then I wondered to myself, this column is all about voicing issues, it’s not like there’s a dearth of those. The challenge is not the lack of ideas or issues, but my brain’s selfish need to focus on personal problems.


At this point I’m overwhelmed with taking care of my Covid-positive parents. I maybe convinced that there are no bigger problems in the world. But the truth is no one cares. No one outside of my tiny family bubble cares at all. Everyone is consumed with their own life hassles.


To be honest, these past months, I haven’t paid much attention to what a caretaker goes through when someone in the family tests positive for this highly contagious virus. This when I work in the disability space where there are enough advocacy campaigns about the society not giving two hoots about caretakers!


We are an inherently self-centered lot. We only stop to think and care when things hit us personally. At all other times, we sit and speculate from the outside. We pass judgement on matters related to disability, mental health, suicides, caste wars, love jihad, economic crisis, media stances et cetera. Worst is we don’t even bat an eyelid for most things that don’t jeopardize our comfort zones.


Braving through these hard times, locked up in home quarantine, I’ve had some time for self-analysis. Surprisingly I find myself guilty of not empathizing enough with other caretakers. I haven’t thought of their struggles, mental and physical stress in coping with the patients’ medical condition as well as frustrations. I thought growing up with a chronically ill parent had trained me to deal with situations. I believed that I could handle it all, until today.


I realise that most of us remain ignorant towards another’s vulnerability. We never know enough about the other side of the story until we have lived it ourselves. Does that mean we can express empathy only if we’ve faced a similar hardship?


Probably not. By definition ‘empathy’ means the ability to imagine another’s perspective or feeling. Having faced difficulty makes it a lot easier to relate to someone in distress. It’s like adding bonus points to your compassion quotient.


Going by the sheer size and diversity of our population, (especially variance in the socio-economic backgrounds), people face gazillion problems daily. That should sensitise the society into becoming more empathetic. Sounds wonderfully utopian.


Except in real life, the focus seems to be on ‘I, me, myself’. I have contracted coronavirus and I have to be isolated. Even though I have no symptoms, I have to stay home for fourteen days. I am so frustrated that I can’t go out. Do we consider the impact of our individual choices on others? What happens if I don’t wear a mask, if I don’t maintain personal hygiene or social distancing, if I don’t follow the advisory to avoid infecting someone else?


I thought it was important to educate people about disability and other causes, in order to alter people’s mindsets so they become more inclusive. But is that really enough? Is the lack of awareness the only reason for our apathy towards vulnerable sections of the population?


Problem is not just ignorance, but also about being inconsiderate. This also reflects in our leadership, as much as it does in our media. Both are constituted of self-absorbed people like you and me. How can we expect media persons to understand, uncover, debate or advocate for issues they don’t care about?


Few months ago, there was hope that the pandemic would bring us closer and create a more conducive environment for everyone. It feels as though that ship has sailed.