Empathy Healthy for us All

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on May 19, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

“Empathy,” according to Psychology Today, “is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.”

I’m driving through West Brownsville one morning on my way to work. I notice several cars ahead of me swerve suddenly and then straighten out, speed up and go on. When I get to the “obstacle” ahead I realize it is an elderly woman standing in the middle of the busy road. She is alone; her arms open in a pleading gesture, searching the sky for answers. I pull over. She is wrinkled, sweaty and rail thin. I guide her to the side of the road, almost getting hit myself by oncoming traffic that refuses to slow down enough to notice human beings. There on the side of the road in plain view, are numerous parents unloading their children from cars at a neighborhood daycare, and several men working on a road repair. Not one of them had taken a moment to get the woman out of the street and ask her what she needed. They must have seen her, but weren’t able to feel her pain or confusion or to act on their concern. Perhaps she looked too crazy, too dirty, too foreign or too old?

As I talked with the woman, she explained that she gets confused and that she didn’t remember how she got to the road. As the story unfolded it became clear that she suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia of some sort. Her purse was empty. Not a wallet, nothing to identify her–just an old, tattered, empty purse. She was a blank slate. She did, however, describe in great detail the cornfields and dirt roads and banana trees of her childhood home in Mexico, as we drove the streets of Brownsville searching for something that would trigger a more recent memory. In the end she produced a tiny scrap of paper from her pocket, a receipt from a bill wadded and stained. It had a man’s name and an address in the Southmost neighborhood. When we knocked on the door, her grown son answered. It seems the woman who cares for her couldn’t get to work that morning because her car had broken down, so the confused lady had wandered from downtown where she lives to West Brownsville several miles away. She had been standing in the street for quite a while, she says, waiting for someone to help her find her way. “I just get so confused,” she muttered over and over, tears running down her weathered, wrinkled face.” She was hungry and thirsty and hot. When it was all over, she grabbed my hand between hers and said, “¡Ay mi hijita! ¿Cuando vienes a tomar un cafecito conmigo?” (Oh sweetheart!  When will you come have coffee with me?). “I get so lonely,” she added.

The point of this story is less about this woman’s loneliness and not at all about my helping her. Rather it is to question how so many cars could go by without stopping.  How could so many witness her distress and do nothing? A frail and elderly woman obviously in need is passed by, literally ignored, almost hit, by vehicle after vehicle.

But then again, we are all quite capable, myself included, of dehumanizing our fellow beings. In fact I think particularly our society has lost some of our ability to empathize –particularly when people are different from us.

The news is full of horrific atrocities and human suffering. Somehow when it is closer to home, or when we can relate to the people involved, our empathy kicks in. But when the pain is suffered by those who are disconnected to us, by geography, nationality, age, education, economic status, religion, and even neighborhood boundaries, it becomes easier to judge, or worse yet, to ignore. Perhaps the problems seem huge, far away, and overwhelming. Perhaps our individualism trumps our ability to connect with our neighbor.

I believe empathy is a key to us thriving as a community and is of crucial importance to our health as a species. So does Dr. Jean Decety, neuroscientist and Irving B Harris Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at University of Chicago. He speculates on the correlation between empathy and enhanced survival.  According to a Loyola University, Chicago neuroscience blog, “Decety’s research identifies empathy throughout evolutionary history as having biological and neurological underpinnings. Many various species of animals exhibit some kind of altruism and Decety’s research suggests that even the most advanced manifestations of empathy seen in humans are associated with fundamental, core mechanisms.   Some contend that this progressive form of empathy is what makes humans the dominant species.”  But how important is one person’s empathy in another’s health? “Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University conclude that patients with more empathetic doctors have fewer medical complications and more positive outcomes.” (http://morebrainpoints.blogspot.com/ 12/11/12 post) Many other similar studies have come to the same conclusions, as have the major religions of the world which place a high value on respect, love and empathy for others.

If our progress as a community, society and human race depends on our ability to empathize, we must model it at home and teach it to our children. One evidence-based classroom program called Roots of Empathy, has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program brings parents with new babies to visit classrooms of children and youth in order to model human response to needs and show how we can learn to feel and relate to others, much as a parent feels a natural empathetic response to his or her crying baby (www.rootsofempathy.org).

Empathy is getting to know people and their stories, and going outside of our comfort zone. Empathy is good for our community, our relationships, our world and our health! Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).