In which we attempt to remember how to empathize.

I find myself becoming increasingly annoyed the longer I hang around the virtual water coolers of social media. I come here looking for intelligent — or even semi-coherent — discussion about the things I find important. Instead I find virtual MAGA hats and pictures of steak. Periodically, there are the bright spots — the serious debate, the meeting of minds, the connections with others in disparate parts of the world — but most of my time is wasted by so many tedious attempts at snark, or deliberate misreading, or simply the refusal to fight the impulse to join the hive mind.

It’s boring. It’s empty. I’m tired.

Yet, this is how we communicate now, us plebs. Those of us without an outlet for our intellectual inner life find solace in the fact that someone, somewhere has heard us. If someone has heard our opinions on steak or exercise or pizza toppings, then we aren’t really alone, right? We can avoid the reality that the vast majority of us are rather inconsequential to anyone outside our immediate sphere of influence.

Being inconsequential is actually okay, if you think about it. We live so much of our lives looking outside ourselves for so many things — love, validation, worth — that we forget that it doesn’t matter whether anyone “hears” or “sees” me, validates me, thinks I’m special. What matters is acquiring information, accruing knowledge, navigating life in a way that does little harm and much good to those I’ve chosen to form community with.

Because being human is about connection. Real, human connection. Looking someone in the eye as you speak to them. Learning how to read people. Discovering empathy and the brutality of hurting for someone else, not just being hurt by them.

And some days we write essays to talk ourselves out of publicly humiliating insipid, inarticulate, digital hillbillies, desperately attempting to remind ourselves that we should practice compassion and not tell them to shut the fuck up already I don’t give a shit what Sean Hannity said.

One thought on “In which we attempt to remember how to empathize.

  1. I find it prophetic that you wrote this almost a year ago. You are absolutely right: “being human is about connection.” The past year has robbed us even more of that connection.

    I think we’ve lost that connection thanks, in part, to technology–or, more specifically, the “system” technology has ushered in. Before the internet, communication had a personal/human touch to it: talking in person or on the phone; writing a letter; etc. These “old school” forms of communication required vulnerability–exposing your soul to another human being. There was no anonymity. No hiding behind a username and fake profile pic. No embellished profiles or posts. Now, thanks to technology, we no longer have to be vulnerable. We can do everything virtually now: we have business meetings virtually; we worship virtually; we bank virtually; we shop virtually; and yes, we even have sex virtually (heck, I heard a radio advertisement the other day promoting a “virtual 5K run”–you can’t make this shit up.) One no longer has to expose his/her soul to another human.

    Yet, one must be vulnerable in order to meaningfully connect to others.

    So, I find myself frequently asking, “Has technology really made things better for us as human beings?” The answer to that question could fill a book (or books).

    But is technology the sole culprit for our current inability to connect? I don’t think so. I mentioned earlier a “system” technology has ushered in. I sense a system is taking over that has forced us to lose our individuality–the uniqueness each human being has. There are numerous examples and instances of how this phenomena is occurring (which again, could fill a book (or books)). But I’ve been observing one here in Ohio (where I live): everyone is required to wear a face mask in public.

    Setting aside the debate over the efficacy and necessity of this mandate (the issue of whether wearing masks does indeed prevent the spread of COVID is immaterial to my observation–that is a different debate/discussion for another time), the result is a loss of human connection; perhaps even a dehumanization. People I interact with in public no longer have a face. They are just a pair of eyes looking back at me. And, I no longer have a face either. To others, I am just a pair of eyes looking at them. All facial expressions, including a smile that warmly acknowledges another’s presence, have been eliminated.

    In short, we no longer see the whole person. And they don’t see the whole us. Whether it’s on the internet (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) or in a public place (a store, restaurant, bank, etc.), we no longer fully connect with other human beings. How long can we go on like this? Will we ever be able to empathize again?


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