Suppressed empathy: Where has humanity disappeared?

When it is out there at the end of last year to us came news that some where Chinese are infected with some there virus, many people this information is only passed along the head. Some head there, one that is now hundreds of years away because it was far more relaxed and less burdensome than the one we carry on our shoulders today. The virus is in Italy, no more a joke, especially if we were skiing or someone was exploring overseas winter. But still, neither the deaths nor the number of patients had much to do with us. These were all some people out there and “God forbid” to ours. The first COVID-19 case in Croatia – not too long ago, we all followed. How is he, how are his, what is his girlfriend’s name and where does he work? Thousands of support messages, hands clasped, in article comments on what life in self-isolation looks like. Poor people, many people thought, I don’t know how they endure … I couldn’t live that way. A week later, here we are – we all live that way.


These numbers are dead and sick people

Every day we hear about numbers and people’s lives turn into curves: what is linear and what is exponential, we have learned better than in high school. The criteria for success of the day, feelings of security and personal peace have shifted significantly. When we hear that the number of the sick, especially the dead, is lower than yesterday, we breathe as we would have recently breathed because the virus was on another continent. There has been a lot of commentary on the subject of the deceased in recent days, in a tone that seems at least insensitive and sometimes cruel. For example, “It’s good, it’s old anyway” or “Uh, I already thought someone who wasn’t and was otherwise sick had died.”

These numbers are people, they have family, they have people who love them and who are left behind. These numbers have a name, a first name, and many of their loved ones will not even have the privilege of saying goodbye at the funeral. Have we really lost our empathy as a society when we forget that? Let’s try to explain from a psychological perspective what is behind the experiences described.


The belief that the world is just

One of our core beliefs is that of a just world. We need to believe that if we do everything right, we will not be “punished” or even rewarded, just like young children.

Another important underlying belief is in personal safety and invulnerability, which is especially pronounced in adolescents so they can engage in risky behaviors. But if we take into account all the dangers that lurk in the world around us and fit into the black statistics, we would live a lot less freely, regardless of the corona. For example, many would not dare to get in a car because of the risk of a car accident.

Very often, when people seem insensitive, it is a natural mechanism of self-protection, a defense against the anxiety of potentially destroying fundamental beliefs that help us maintain peace. Unfortunately, in our clinical practice, we have often witnessed blaming the victim of violence. How many times have you heard or read, “If she hadn’t worn such a short skirt, he wouldn’t have attacked her!”, “He must have provoked a slap in something!”, “That’s why I never walk alone at night!” We strive in every way to ensure that we are different, that we cannot identify with the victims, and that we are “safe”. And when you ask the same victims what is worse for them, many times you will hear that this kind of environmental reaction was more painful than the violence itself. Accidents, tragedies, illnesses, violence … All this happens almost or completely without control. There are things we can control and ways to contribute to protection, but no one, not one in the world, is quite sure that something terrible will happen to him. And this helplessness scares us, so we try to defend ourselves from fear.


Show your child that we can feel safe and have empathy for other people

It is important for me to emphasize that explanation is not the same as justification. Although we can understand why some people do or say something, it does not mean that they are amnestied from responsibility. This is especially true when around them are children and young people who learn from the examples of what they see and hear from the whole society, but most of all their parents and loved ones. Of course, we do not need to identify ourselves with every victim (the corona or anything else) to the extent that emotions overwhelm us as if something terrible happened to us. But the world is not black and white. There are so many colors in between and our goal is to find a balance, which in this case would be healthy empathy.

If you come across an anti-empathy comment with your child , talk. If you ever get such a comment, come back and talk again – with yourself and your child. If spoken by a child, listen and speak again, without condemnation, but with a clear message. Talk. And show your child that we can feel safe and have empathy for other people, especially victims – be it China, Croatia, the Corona or violence. They some there easily become ourselves. And then, we absolutely need empathy.


By: Mia Roje Đapić, MSc. of psychology

Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy. 

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