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Awareness of the 'Empathy Gap'

    Douglas Bedell
    By Douglas Bedell

    Categories: community, services

    Stations in life – are they way-stations, or for many, deadend locales? If more the latter, need they be desolate, hopeless settings? Or could neighborly concern help improve them? Such questions are prompted by a caustic column by Kenneth Horrigan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – "A Ride Through Empathy Gap with a Faithful Manservant."

    Yes, there is a gap in empathy – sympathetic feelings toward others – that may be one of the primordial aspects of human nature that remains to be more fully overcome.

    "In politics," Horrigan writes, "readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap.”

    Yes, we can unwittingly view people via the labels attached to them – poor, homeless, helpless, lost souls or, simply, uncouth - when consideration of their circumstances (if we actually knew them) might lead to gains for all. Some victims of life's drearier circumstances might not respond, but others would surely be appreciative. Human nature isn't decreed from birth; it's capable of betterment even when circumstances seem fixed and frozen.

    Fairness requires an earnest look at deplorable circumstances, yet too often we turn away from them. Horrigan quotes psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of "Emotional Intelligence," as noting that "A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.” 

    So it has always been, you may say. But need it always be? A premise of the Affordable Care Act is that people with pre-existing conditions deserve afforable medical attention for them. That isn't so much radical as evidence of a willingness to walk in another's shoes (or even our own) feelingly and confidently.

    Need it be "Empathy Gap," or more in line with our capacity as intelligent observers, "Empathy Awareness"? Especially when it extends to the halls of Congress, our congenital tendency to think in stereotypes and presumptions needs to be acknowledged and, finally, overcome. We can do better in terms of acknowledging and planning – not simply branding compelling social needs as giving rise to irresponsible spending.