“The Other Is [Not] Me:” Lack Of Empathy

Yesterday morning I heard on NPR (Morning Edition) about a new study which found that parents were responsible in part for the increase of Narcissism among young people today. According to Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University, if a kid does something amazing, and you tell her that she’s very smart or that she’s a very special kid, you increase her chances of becoming a narcissist. However if you say that she must have worked really hard you raise her self-esteem and keep her ego in check.

In earlier generations parents hardly ever complimented their children on good behavior, or praised their performance, for fear of “spoiling” them. This type of upbringing seemed cold and even a bit cruel and when we, my generation, became parents in the mid 1980s we vowed to do things differently and purposely encouraged and praised our children.

One of the characteristics of Narcissism is lack of empathy. Bushman says that  “Empathy involves putting yourselves in other people’s shoes, but narcissists have a very difficult time putting themselves in other people’s shoes.”

Empathy is an inborn quality, I don’t believe that if we compliment our children, even using the wrong words, we could damage this important quality. Fortunately, for those who lack empathy, it could also be nurtured through education and role modelling.

Empathy which is the ability to recognize and respond to what another person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. People who lack empathy act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others.The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, aggression, and violent behavior.

In Israel the Ministry of Education recognized the importance of fostering empathy in early childhood. After the last election, only two years ago, the new Minister of Education, Rabbi Shai Piron, an educator himself, chose to concentrate on the theme of “the other is me,” a take on the biblical commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) in order to create a better future for our society.

In the Hebrew origin the commandment is to love your friend, but in the different English versions the word used is  “a neighbor.” Perhaps the reason that the King James translator favored a neighbor over a friend is that we choose our friends but not our neighbor, thus the latter is a good example of  “the other.”

This is a worthy campaign especially as Israel is a heterogeneous society in the midst of an ongoing conflict with neighbors inside and outside. We do not love our neighbors, and are in urgent need of relearning how to be a civilized society. I don’t know which workbooks are used to teach the children empathy and tolerance, but going back to the parents’ responsibility, if children are to grow up being more compassionate and caring, parents and teachers should practice empathy themselves.

And for all those among us who lack empathy and are violent or intolerant toward their different neighbors, a quick reminder: “I not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”


Link to the NPR program:

An excellent article by Jane E Brody NYT 2010:

Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps


About the Author
I hold a PhD in English Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, specializing in writing about issues related to women, literature, culture, and society. Having lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994), I bring a diverse perspective to my work. As a widow, in March 2016, I initiated a support and growth-oriented Facebook group for widows named "Widows Move On." The group has now grown to over 2000 members, providing a valuable space for mutual support and understanding.
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