Dr. Ayesha C. Hunter – Empathy: The Lost Art of Giving A Damn About Your Fellow Man
As an African American Counseling Psychologist, I have worked with a lot of African Americans over the years. I have noticed that many of our people have suffered in many areas of our lives. It behooves me to reflect on this, as I write this article, and to comment on the noticeable trends of us African Americans lacking empathy towards our fellow human beings.
Exactly what is empathy? It is a new buzz word in neuroscience and psychology. Its roots in the field of the sciences, have been linked to tenets of Buddhism. Empathy was certainly a characteristic of Jesus Christ, of the Christian religion (which we know the sciences do not recognize this unfortunately—but that is another topic!). So, what is the meaning of empathy and why am I writing about this as it relates to African Americans?
The word empathy, according to Dictionary.com, is defined as, “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” In other words, empathy involves being able to sense another person’s emotions. It could involve merely imagining what that person could be feeling or thinking. The concept of being more empathetic has gone mainstream and us American Citizens are seeing more in social media, the sciences, in business and in the news about the importance of becoming more empathetic. Scientists have uncovered the existence of mirror neurons found in the brain, which helps us react to emotions that are expressed in other individuals.
The buzz about being empathetic stems from this revolutionary shift in the field of neuroscience and psychology and how we now understand human nature. As a licensed marriage family therapist and a Counseling Psychologist, I have been attending vast psychotherapy trainings throughout central and northern California in the last 10 years; and believe me, in these trainings the word empathy is a key topic in these arenas. There have been numerous scientific studies in recent years on the topic of empathy, which reveal how healing it could be to become more empathetic. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered that human beings are wired for having empathy—meaning our brains have the capacity to be empathetic to others. Wired implies that being empathetic is in our DNA.
One area of the brain that creates the feelings of empathy is called the insula. This region of the brain was long neglected by research up until recent years. And, what we have discovered is that the insula is proposed to be responsible for several features that we have. The insula controls the well-spring of social emotions—like humiliation, disgust, lust, pride, atonement, giving rise to moral intuition, the capacity to respond emotionally to music and being empathetic (According to the Feb. 2007 issue of The New York Times).
Therefore, the insula is said to be an important function of our brain that helps us to read bodily states, like hunger and drug and alcohol cravings. When the insula is activated, a person can crave drugs, feel pain, anticipate pain coming, notice disgust on another person’s face, have empathy with others, be social in social settings, listen to music, and even notice someone cheating and decide to punish that person in return. Yes, even that too! So, now you know that it’s this part of the brain that allows us humans to have the capacity to do these very things listed. By the way, if any damage to the insula occurs, like a brain injury, and the insula is damaged, the results could include an individual having loss of libido, becoming apathetic and an inability to tell the difference between rotten food or fresh food. Interesting, huh?
Just what am I proposing here, as it relates to African Americans? As in the title of this article, I am proposing that African Americans are being less empathic towards one another now-a-days, despite it supposedly being in our DNA. To me, there seems to be a trend of African Americans being more self-centered, prideful and unbrotherly towards one another, especially more so in the last 20 years. In the past, it seems that in certain regions of the United States, we had more African American communities that stuck together, helping one another. Our families were more intact and we looked out more for one another.
Then there are those of us psychologists who believe we are inherently unempathetic towards one another—long before 20 years ago. In fact, Dr. Joyce DeGruy argues that we have been this way ever since slavery. Dr. DeGruy, who conceptualized the concept entitled Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome (P.T.S.S) and argues that as an offshoot of slavery in the U.S. for 246 years, we are still suffering from the ramifications of slavery—even generations later. And, because we never got mental health therapy or treatment, she argues that we never truly recovered as an African American people (and she also includes the Caribbean and other African descent individuals that were repopulated). Thus, those unresolved traumatic experiences from slavery, have left us betraying, fighting, backbiting and hating on one another from the centuries that followed those years of bondage and affliction. Seemingly, we are now more than ever unempathetic towards one another in many ways, due to the oppression of slavery…despite it supposedly being in our DNA.
Social Scientists also reported that empathetic ways of being can also be learned and enhanced, even in adulthood. There is a huge debate in literature, regarding if this is true or not. Researchers report that empathy is both a learned skill and an instinct. Scientists have revealed that babies, as young as four months old, can sense their mother’s feelings of anxiety and stress. They also argue that empathy doesn’t stop enhancing and developing during the childhood years. In fact, they propose that humans can nurture empathy’s growth throughout our lives. It is believed that empathy can become an attitude—a way of looking at life.
It appears that we, as African American people, are becoming less and less empathetic towards others. Are we going to become more mindful of the harmful effects of slavery—allowing our past to separate us further and further? Are we capable of tapping into our parts of the brain structure and becoming more empathic towards one another? Can we learn to be more empathetic?
For what it’s worth, we do need to be more understanding and empathetic towards one another. With the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign going on, the sign of the times reveals we need empathy more than ever. It is true that we continue to be mistreated and prejudiced by people of other races. Yet when we discriminate, hate and hurt one another within our own race, how much further are we perpetuating the after effects of post-slavery? It is a travesty!
I say it is time to wake up! Know what we are up against. Let us foster qualities like empathy and compassion—transforming our unity—building up our communities, such as other races do in our great nation. Let us educate ourselves and empower one another—forgiving one another. Take moments to reflect on what it must be like to walk in another person’s shoes. Reflect. Be mindful. Enhance being empathetic and reap the fruit that it brings.
Dr. Ayesha C. Hunter
LMFT, Author, Educator, Public Speaker
Member of Association of Black Psychologist, California Board of Behavioral Sciences, Proud Member of Gamma Phi Delta (and Grammateus)