Outreach: The Return of Empathy

Have we evolved in our capacity to empathize with others as we moved through the COVID-19 pandemic? Now is an opportune time to for us to reflect internally about how we relate to ourselves, our families and friends; to our neighbors—whether they are next door, or in a different country. As services and businesses become more accessible, it is likely that we will discover we relate to each other differently.

We’ve experienced a global movement for humanity: a reorientation to governments, nature, and each other. We find ourselves ending our romance with hyper-individualism and truly valuing those people who risked their lives. Whether frontline healthcare workers; first responders; grocery store clerks; pharmacists; mail carriers, delivery services; public transportation drivers or sanitation workers, there was a societal appreciation for the work being done to keep all of us safe. During this crisis, we’ve seen a growing disconnect to people and things that are untouchable or superfluous–like celebrities and excessive shopping. People discovered a new relationship with nature as individuals and families took hikes, re-connecting to the outdoors and to one another. We set aside individual wants to ensure our family, friends and strangers remained safe. We found new value and importance in our relationships.

According to psychiatrist and researcher Helen Riess, author of The Empathy Effect, “the ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society.” She further explains, “Empathy involves an ability to perceive others’ feelings (and to recognize our own emotions), to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to have concern for their welfare. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action is the most logical response.”

The neural foundations of empathy allow us to value personal connections and relationships with not only those closest to us, but to strangers as well. In the face of navigating new environments while our society slowly re-emerges from quarantine and defines the “new normal,” we begin to understand one another’s needs, and may even reassess our own values.

The empathic response is a subconscious one, a built-in biological response to suffering; but we still need to practice and work at it. Research indicates that it is more difficult to empathize outside of our cultural landscapes. For example, a resident in Appalachia may find it difficult to empathize with a resident of New York City. Cognitive empathy—the ability to understand what another person is feeling—allows us to walk in the shoes of others in the midst of the global pandemic.

As we move to social reconstruction, empathy will be at the forefront. Surviving COVID-19 is a shared, inclusive experience. The last two and a half months have provided an opportunity for us to reconsider who we are, what we value; moving forward it challenges us to be better both individually and collectively.

Outreach wishes to extend our condolences to those who lost loved ones due to COVID-19.

We continue to support our community’s children, teens and families through telehealth, adhering to the guidance of the Allegheny County Health Department and the CDC for re-opening our services for face-to-face counseling sessions.

Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer programs to youth age 5 to 21, parents and families, in a welcoming, supportive environment. www.outreachteen.org. 412-561-5405. This column is partially underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.