Empathy: The Power of Connection

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I thought a great deal about the human heart this past week, how fragile it is and how easy it is to take another person’s heart for granted. More than that, I found out about the “Internet Heart.”

Within seven days, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade died by their hand. I stop and re-read the “by their own hand” part. They weren’t the victims of a murder-robbery or a terrible plane or train crash. They elected to take their own lives.

They were major celebrities in their own right. They were wealthy, successful, had families and fame. It did not matter. In the end, within the recesses of their minds, they could not face the demons and despair that overwhelmed them. They could no longer fight it, whatever “it” was. They leave loving families and friends – they leave them forever.


Feelings of Inadequacy

I have been told the news channels have been jammed with commentators and experts of the human mind, all offering their theories of suicide. Suicide is on the increase across the nation. In the minds of many individuals who take their lives, and those who almost take their lives is that they are just not good enough. They cannot compare, they cannot compete, they aren’t beautiful enough, talented enough, athletic enough and will never be successful enough.

Many of us cannot escape these feelings of inadequacy. It is not just celebrity, but everyday people in all walks of life and all professions. Recently reports of high suicide rates have emerged of affluent high school kids, mercilessly pushed by their wealthy parents to “succeed” whatever success represents to their unfulfilled parents. I cannot imagine a child so cruelly pushed to a prominent college, that a failure to achieve anything less will lead to taking a life. Many a research study shows that in the end, it’s not where we start out; it’s what we do along the way that determines our success. Of course, it leads to some parents not being able to claim “bragging rights.”


The Internet Connection

Never mind that a child or an adult is good and kind and decent and has a kind soul. Those particular qualities do not seem to matter any longer. After all, we must pursue accomplishments and tell the world how amazing we are.

In that domain, everything must be happy and wonderful, every child must be “beautiful and talented,” every adult must be in a big, important job, going or coming back from lavish vacations, winning incredibly prestigious awards and having the only significant point of view.

Who can live up to all that? No one. It leads to disconnection and bitterness lest we let down our guards and disappoint any one of our “friends” or “followers” or “connections.”

After hearing of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, my daughter-in-law shared with me the comments on Facebook, LinkedIn and the “profound tweets” of Twitter. Amid the sad and presumably heartfelt comments (at least that’s what they wrote), were an amazingly high percentage of mean, ugly, judgmental, bigoted, and self-centered expressions of disdain.

I was shocked, but not surprised to hear about all the negativity and arrogance. So many people in our society have indeed become social media “posers.” They proclaim they are just honest, but chances are they’re mean.


Finding A Balance

I submit that while suicide rates are skyrocketing, a societal lack of empathy is shooting up even higher. The question is, “What are we as a society doing about it?”

There are many possible causes of human cruelty, such as Borderline Personality Disorders, genetics, hormones, and cultural roots, but social networking may be one of the main reasons today.  People are not interacting face-to-face much anymore, but rather Facebook, text, and chat online. However, to be empathetic, you must learn to read others’ faces, particularly the eyes.

This is not the first time I have expressed this, nor the first time you’ve heard it, but Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter and on and on, are digital keystrokes in the atmosphere. They are shadows of binary numbers, and they are gone in a Nano-second. Comments are not conversations.

I’m not against the Internet or social media, and getting rid of technology is not the answer, but society must find a balance. Nothing replaces real, live, human interaction and really seeing someone with all of their laughter and sometimes, their tears and need for help. Empathy is very valuable, maybe the most valuable resource for humanity. Empathy has the power to resolve a conflict. In fact, it may be one of the most successful strategies, and it costs nothing.

We are all afraid of something, love something, and have lost something. Empathy heightens awareness of commonality and connection. People suffer and struggle with life in many of the same ways you do. It’s time to turn off the device and turn on empathy. Use your voice for kindness, your ears for compassion, and your heart for love. Empathy can’t be done at a distance. Being with takes us being there entirely in body, mind, heart, and soul. It’s time to look away from your screen and look into their eyes. The power of connection is not the Internet; it is empathy.



For more information about Hall of Fame speaker and bestselling author Steve Gilliland and the Gilliland Foundation, please contact steve@stevegilliland.com / 724-540-5019 / www.stevegilliland.com.