Friday, April 16, 2010

Empathy Failures

Phoebe Prince. She's still on my mind.

Details are emerging about the hell this Massachusetts teenager went through during the last weeks of her life, all because she spoke with an accent and dated the wrong guy (who, if cosmic justice is served, will never "score" with a woman the future). She spent her last day on earth dodging empty soda cans and striving to close her ears to brutal epithets. She went home with tears in her eyes.

Nobody cared.

Here lies the crux of this tragedy. Now that Phoebe is dead, Ashley Longue and her gang of sociopathic thugs are facing charges for their cruelty. Yet no one bothered to look into the matter while Phoebe was still alive and might have been saved. From the bullies themselves, bitter because a newcomer had breached their precious upper echelon, no mercy could have been expected. Most people are wondering why the adults in authority failed to intervene meaningfully on Phoebe's behalf. For my part, I'm wondering about the teens -- the classmates who saw what she was enduring, yet offered her no friendship, no words of comfort or support. An empathetic teen could have done as much if not more to lighten Phoebe's load than an authoritative adult.

In our teenage years, we depend more than we ever will again on the encouragement our peers alone can give. I recall a time during my last weeks of high school, when I was the victim of a bully. I had never exchanged harsh words with this girl before, yet suddenly she was telling everyone we knew, within my hearing, that she was going to beat me up. I was terrified. I knew no way to defend myself against physical assault. Yet somehow I summoned the courage to ask her, point blank, "Why do you hate me all of a sudden? What did I do to you?" Her reply was telling: "You were born."

Yet I was luckier than Phoebe. I had friends to take my part. Thanks to them I made it to graduation with a shred of dignity. A good, close friend makes the best antidote to bullies' poison.

Yet apparently no one reached out to Phoebe in friendship. No one took her side. Apathy, not empathy, ruled the day as her schoolmates watched the sociopaths brutalize her into a breakdown, and did nothing.

The Phoebe Prince tragedy is a classic example of "empathy failure," though it's by no means the only one. Empathy failures are everywhere. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist "Church" had the nerve to counter-sue the grieving father whose fallen son he insulted, because his heart is closed to empathy. He can't see the father's side of things. He can't see past his Cro-Magnon view that America and its fighting servicemen are damned.

Likewise, how did married athlete Tiger Woods manage to find so many women willing, if not eager, to sleep with him? How different that situation might have been if just a few of those women had responded to his overtures with, "No, Tiger, I don't sleep with married man. I wouldn't want any man to hurt me as badly as your wife would be hurt if she ever found out." If a few of them had seen the situation from the side of the betrayed wife and children.

We've heard a lot of talk about empathy in the past year -- but not where it matters. It's not government agencies like the Supreme Court that need to act with "empathy" (if the government even knows what it means). It's we private citizens, in our daily encounters with each other and the choices we make. We need to consider what harm our actions, or inactions, might do to others. We need to notice the cruelty taking place right under our noses and ask ourselves seriously two important questions: "What if it were me?" and "What can I do?"

The Golden Rule. Still a good idea.

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