Reclaiming Empathy In the Age of Indifference

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I don’t know about you, but these days, I’m numb. Numb to the rising tide of this unending pandemic. Numb to the suffering of people in Afghanistan. Numb to the wildfires ravaging communities across the West. Numb to the tearing of our country’s social fabric and the partisan screaming all around. I don’t know if it’s a result of exhaustion from years of living with national, global, and existential crises or if the fact that most of my human interactions are mediated by a screen have made it harder to put myself in other people’s shoes.

And it’s not just me. Last fall, social psychologists Judith Hall and Mark Leary wrote an article for Scientific American declaring that America as a whole has “an empathy deficit.” We are losing our ability to care about others, especially those who don’t look, think, or act like us. We no longer believe we owe anything to each other, or that other perspectives are worth hearing. We are cold, indifferent, and isolated. I know I am.

Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that I’ve been finding a remedy for my own empathy deficit in books. Not just any books. Several wonderful books about diverse experiences, written by authors whose worldviews are fundamentally different than my own, have fallen into my possession. Books like How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, Gun Island, This Is How You Lose the Time War, Arc of Justice, Exhalation, and The House in the Cerulean Sea are renewing my capacity to care about my fellow humans.

These are books that deal with difficult subjects, like climate change, racial justice, and the queer experience. They’ve challenged me, they’ve broken my heart, and they are slowly wearing down my callouses. I think reading beyond our comfort zone is necessary now more than ever. If we don’t relearn how to feel what a stranger feels, then we’re in deep trouble. But if we can rediscover something buried in the pages of a book that can remind us that we are part of the world instead of separate from it, then maybe there’s hope for the future.

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Jonny Eberle lives in Tacoma, WA with his wife, three typewriters, and a puppy. His fiction has been featured in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine and All Worlds Wayfarer. Read more of his short fictionfollow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his monthly email newsletter.

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