Ever watch teenagers interact when they meet someone their age for the first time? They exchange opinions about music, fashion, movies and the like. Trivia perhaps, but important when young people are struggling for acceptance.
If enough potential friends like a certain pop singer, the teenager often decides to "like" that singer as well. Too many differences in opinion, and unless they have some very strong credentials — they're a football star or the hottest girl on campus — they're left on the outside looking in.
No one wants that. Adults often do the same thing. They look for like-minded individuals and avoid those who are different. How many times have you heard someone say, "he or she is OK but they don't think like we do"?
What you don't hear is, "They don't feel like we do." But as long as we are all human, we all share the same needs and the same feelings. This is so basic that an individual doesn't share them can be called pathological. All too often, however, we act as if the other — whoever that "other" is — does not have the same fundamental drives that we have.
Cultures differ but culture still overlies the basic human condition. The question then becomes, why are we not more empathic toward one another? Few people are overtly cruel. Many are amazingly kind and generous to those in distress, but people can be extremely insensitive toward one another when they don't share common ground.
Or, more accurately put, when they don't see common ground. Because no matter how different people appear, we are a single species, and humanity has come as far as it has because we are a cooperative species. We compete with one another, sure, and competition can make us stronger, but only up to a point. When beating out the other guy becomes the main focus of any endeavor, from sports to business to politics, it weakens the enterprise.
This is what President Barack Obama meant when he said, "There's a lot of talk ... about the federal deficit, but I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit."
Obama use of the word "empathy" has been questioned. Critics say it proves he is a bleeding-heart liberal or a touchy-feely do-gooder, but the critics' gibes only prove they don't know what the word means.
There is nothing touchy-feely about it. The unabridged Webster defines empathy as "the projection of one's own personality into the other in order to understand him better." It means understanding the needs and feelings of another human being.
It means everything from "standing in the other man's shoes" to "knowing your enemy," and it's essential for leadership of any kind, whether it's running a business or a regiment or a country. Empathy is essential in a democracy because a nation governed by the people and for the people has to understand who those people are.
Americans are frightened these days. And why not? Things are changing at a scary pace. The climate is changing. International alliances are shifting. Old traditional values are under attack. The nation's psyche is balanced precariously between fight or flight. But fight whom and flee where?
Right now, we are fighting among ourselves and fleeing into denial. Cooperation is looked upon as capitulation, and trying to understand the other guy is equated with being soft. Am I preaching? Perhaps, but I believe in my country. I think we have everything we need to weather the changes taking place around the world.
We will adapt. However, the first step is to name the problem. The next step is to understand the people involved. We can't do that unless we stop our attacks on one another and learn to empathize. It is a talent that is in short supply in Americans these days.
Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.