On Friday I read a news release by HealthDay News that cited a study of American college students over the past three decades. It found less empathy among students today than in the recent past.
“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” co-author Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, said in a news release. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”
The data cited indicates that today’s students are less alert to the views and needs of others who are in hard times. Konrath stated that college students today are “self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic”.
The article includes Konrath’s speculation about the basis for this shift: “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games. And a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”
The report is troubling, but I’m not inclined to jump on a critical bandwagon here. As a counterpoint, I’m personally impressed with the selflessness and devotion of many of the young adults I’m around these days.
And I’m also aware that my own generation—those who entered college in the late 60’s—is famous for rebellions, extra-marital sex that multiplied with the coming of the pill and convenience-based-abortions, the huge rise of dissolved marriages, and more. So if any generation qualifies as “self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic” I’m ready to raise my hand on behalf of my former classmates to say, “That’s us: guilty as charged!”
Here’s my point: the problem of compassionless self-absorption has been around for a long time. We can turn to Paul’s warning to Timothy, for instance, that sin is essentially a problem of narcissistic devotion even among so-called believers who have “the appearance of godliness” (2 Timothy 3:5). What was their problem?
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . . (3:1-4).
That’s certainly not a list of character qualities you’re looking for in a spouse or in a neighbor!
But the Bible—in its whole—regularly points to these qualities as the outcome of Adam’s fall. We either love God or we love whatever fills the role of God for us. And in our struggle with the many competing affections that call out to us, if we turn from responding to God’s love in favor of another love we have taken on a God-like role. In this we become de facto gods by overturning God’s original design for us (and for all humanity): that we are meant to love him with whole hearts. So that even in our “search for meaning”, in our “devotion to security”, or in our “need for fulfillment”—and in all the other possible self-preoccupations that go on ad infinitum—we are simply following Adam’s lead in being “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
But enough of all this negativity. Here’s a positive question to ask: how can we become genuinely God-like people. And with that, how do we get beyond our selfish preoccupations?
For a starter we should notice Konrath’s point about the unhelpful effects of media. And with that we should also listen to what Jesus taught his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23). Christ’s analogy of an eye’s physical function was linked immediately to what it is that a person treasures most in the following verses about loving only one master.
The point is that whatever we have as our soul’s gaze is what we become. If we’re given over to looking at worthless things, we grow increasingly worthless. If we find violence to be entertaining, we become affiliated with violence.
Think, then, of what Jesus did in his ministry. His teaching wasn’t done in classrooms but in the places where there were poor people, blind people, lame people, leprous people, immoral people, needy people. And he had compassion on them. Again and again in the gospels we read that “he felt compassion . . .”
As we use the imagery of vision let me return to something I’ve written before, that faith is a function of our soul’s gaze. When we look to Jesus we only do so because he’s already tapped on our hearts to catch our attention. Then in looking to him we find him gazing into our hearts with compassion: seeing our sin, our pride, our fears, our doubts while telling us, “come to me all you who are weary and burdened”. And as we come to him in faith he places his arm around our shoulders and says, “Do you see all those who are needy? Come with me while I care for them.”
Our hands then become his hands. Our hearts reveal his heart. Our joy is in giving rather than in receiving.
Today, then, do we know someone captured by video games? Offer some compassion by inviting them to places where real relationships exist. Do we know some who are living worthless lives? Have compassion on them by inviting them to join you in offering food, coats, and socks to the local street people. Do we know someone who has never met with God? Have some compassion and share your own joy in knowing Christ.
Empathy is cultivated, then, by both receiving it and then by offering it to others. It’s a heart-to-heart activity that starts with a Heart-to-heart meeting with God. Someone has to offer it to others in every place and in every generation. God meets that need by offering it freely through his Son, and by the Spirit; and we, as we feel his compassion towards us, will soon have compassion for others. Try it and see for yourself; then offer it to someone else.