Even empathy needs a break

My Facebook feed has been full of lofty sayings of late. The most recent? “The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism.”

This one is attributed to the historian Hannah Arendt, and like most of the moral adages showing up on my feed, it’s left there hanging. To whom does it apply? Is it being aimed at anyone or any one side in particular? Is it universal or is there an implied nod or wink?

It gets me thinking about all those Black Lives Matter activists and sympathizers who get all worked up when they see someone post “All lives matter.” And I get it. I do. I definitely get their anger.

Because Black Lives Matter. They matter all the time. In more places than we care to admit. Full stop. If you have anything else to say, go elsewhere to say it. No mixing allowed. No equivocations. No dilutions. Move on to a clean page.

What I also will say here is that Israeli Lives Matter. I believe that other lives matter, too, some that might surprise you given the dark days that I, along with millions of others, am experiencing. But that’s for another post. I don’t want to mix issues. I don’t want to equivocate. I don’t want to dilute things. Not today.

So Israeli Lives Matter.

Please don’t weave this in with narratives about other people. Just agree or disagree and, if need be, move elsewhere. But I absolutely BEG of you: If you can’t help yourself and simply must say that the legitimate grievances of other people mean that you or others can somehow justify the acts of terrorist monsters, go away. And don’t come back. You are not welcome. Not on my page. Not in my life.

I believe I’m a person with human empathy. When I show it, I try to make clear where that empathy lies. I don’t worry that someone might think it’s not universal, not everywhere all at once and not all things to all people. And I certainly don’t worry that someone might think I’m not an absolutely wonderful, selfless and perfect soul. So I don’t post things about goodness and decency that should be self-evident, and then simply move on without comment. Why leave people guessing?

While my empathy is alive and well, though, it’s tired. It’s overworked as I am forced to choose between people and actions that are right and wrong. It’s overworked as it fends off attempts to coopt it in directions it cannot go. It’s overworked as I see all these maxims that are left a little too unspecific.

So it’s time for a snooze, and if my empathy’s existence is not readily apparent, please know that it is not dead or dying. I am not falling into barbarism. It’s just a breather, Hannah Arendt or not.

About the Author
Lawrence Rifkin is a retired Israeli journalist.
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