I have a 10-year-old who is one of the most empathetic people I know. When classmates get hurt or teased, he feels their pain. He also often wonders why so many people in the world don’t seem to empathize at all, why don’t they seem to care about what happens to others? As a mother, I find this a hard question to answer without sounding too dismal about the state of things. You want to instill hope in your children. You want them to be optimistic and see the best in things, but the same time you can’t protect them from everything and neither should you. They also need the tools to deal with reality, to deal with setbacks and bad news. They need to develop resilience; they’ll thank you for it for the rest of their lives.
So I don’t always know what to say, but we do have conversations about things that are confusing, like the lack of empathy. We talk about social media a lot and how people seem to think that it’s okay to say very hurtful things to others just because they don’t do it to their faces. And let’s be honest here. The threshold to being rude to others is lower on social media, especially if you don’t know the person on the receiving end personally. But it is still rude and hurtful, and when grown-ups act this way they set a really bad example to their kids. They teach them that it’s okay to speak to people this way, which in turn can be seen in how kids talk to each other at school. Sometimes I wonder what happened to respect. Growing up, my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything positive or constructive to say, then it is best to just not say anything at all. A pretty good rule of thumb if you ask me.
But what is really going on here? Well, some have argued that what we are seeing is a culture of narcissism. *
According to social theorists, a reinvention and therapy culture has evolved, at least in the West, which creates a self-absorption that really doesn’t strike me as very healthy. If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you will probably have noticed the vast number of self-help books, books that promise to make you the very best version of yourself. It seems there is nothing you can’t do or achieve with the right book. They, along with the endless number of reality shows that have entertained us for the past couple of decades, where people get made over or provided with fast therapy before millions of viewers, bring a promise of reinvention and instant transformation.
This may sound like a good thing, but unfortunately this constant obsession with the real and true me tends to become a bit destructive. The quest for authenticity seems to make everything we do or say okay as long as we are being true to ourselves. Instead of good or bad, our behavior becomes a clue to who we really are, an insight into our unique inner selves.
Translated into plain English, this just means that therapy culture not only makes us self-centered, it makes it okay to be self-centered.
I think there is some truth to this, even though it is only part of it. There are naturally other factors, which also play in, like the heightened awareness of risk that people experience and the threat of a loss of identity, which the xenophobia that is bubbling more or less under the surface in many corners of the world, testifies to. But that is material for a separate blog post. In the meantime, I wonder, what can we do? How can we get people to become less self-centered?
* For more on the culture of narcissism see for example The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch or The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett