I started writing on this topic upon lots of introspection some weeks back; However, I lost some inspiration along the way. It wasn’t until I started interning at a hospital in the cardiac intensive care unit that my experiences led to me to pick up on this subject once more: how self-sufficiency can turn into a lack of empathy.
Being out of tune with reality is a condition that often strikes closer to home than we realize. When we think of this trending phrase of “being in the now”, we think of temporarily deleting apps on our phones (e.g. instagram, twitter, facebook, etc.) that might consume the time we could spend with our loved ones or even letting go of our obsessions with our work. We rarely stop to think that it isn’t just a problem having to do with the lifestyle we lead, but that it also has to do with what our concept of “being out of tune with reality” truly means to us.
You could easily live a life without a smartphone, yet still lose touch with the present. The root of this problem that seems to plague us, whether generation Y or Z, is that the line between self-sufficiency and a lack of empathy can become blurred.
So, what is self-suffiency? According to the Merriam-Webster definition self-sufficiency refers to being “capable of providing for one’s own needs” or being “able to maintain oneself or itself without outside aid”. Self-suffiency is actually a great quality which most of us have the blessing of being able to adopt in order to become independent. There is absolutely no problem with this concept at all, except when it is combined with selfishness. From there, arrogance and pride latch on and we start to alienate ourselves from the empathy we once had.
Let me start off by saying that there isn’t a problem with leaving home for college to follow one’s dreams or pursuing a goal that will bring satisfaction and fulfillment. There isn’t a problem with seeking success or chasing an ambition that brings no harm to others. The problem lies in our motivations. Not just the ones we start with but those that remain. The problem lies on what we lend our attention and focus to. Our motivations form our rudder, which steers us in a precise direction in life.
If our motivations are always connected to self-gain (whether money, career advancement, recognition, etc.) without at least dedicating or attributing part of our reason why for doing things to positively helping those around us, we may develop self-sufficiency (a very good thing), yet also gradually develop a lack of empathy. It’s not quite noticeable at first. The egoism slowly starts festering. Then, all of a sudden, the things we care about revolve around what we might gain. We start to view giving and sharing almost as a loss- loss of time, resources, etc. Or even worse, we might be helping those around us, but it’s not for the right reasons. We become numb while helping others, almost like little peripheral route processing robots that help because it might be one’s job, because of the positive mood effects it gives us, or because we might gain something in return.
Empathy is the ability of being able to feel what others feel. There’s an ongoing trend on the world wide web and social media that I like to call the “passive advocate” phenomenon. Every single day, as you scroll through Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram there is always at least one post (especially when there is a crisis abroad or some sort of horrible injustice that has happened nearby) dedicated to advocating for an issue at hand or advocating for other individuals. While it’s great to be vocal and increase awareness of a matter at hand, it is oftentimes more helpful to be an active advocate and helper, getting involved within the community and creating the change you want to see happen.
The “passive advocate” phenomenon allows us to mask the dwindling state of our empathy. By not being in direct contact with those or that which we advocate for, because of a lack of proximity, it is harder for us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. Furthermore, the center of our focus can create this lack of empathy. Imagine some concentric circles, each space between each circle representing a sphere of proximity in terms of the people and events that surround us. We tend to focus on solving problems that are farther away from what is closest to us. We sometimes are very in touch with what is happening globally yet lose sight with what is happening closest to us. We become advocates for situations or people that are hundreds of miles away from us, at the cost of losing focus of those that are feet away from us when there should never really be a cost, but a balance. This is also a form of being out of touch with reality. Reality isn’t just in terms of the relativity of time, it is also in terms of proximity.
Being in touch with reality is about enjoying the moments we get to spend with others, while also enjoying those peaceful moments we get to spend alone. It’s about paying mind to your own well-being and happiness, while being conscious of other’s lives and what help and positive things you can contribute to them. Most importantly, it’s about never losing sight of what is happening around you (not just far away in another country, but also in your own household and in the lives of those you spend at least one hour of your day with). It’s about caring and showing (through continuous, direct actions) that you sincerely do. Self-sufficiency does not have to come at the cost of empathy and it doesn’t have to be accompanied by selfishness, arrogance, or pride.