Is Empathy at Risk of Becoming an “Endangered Species”?

Len Delony1Reclaiming solitude is a pathway to conversation.
— Sherry Turkle “Reclaiming Conversation”

Last week I ended my Wednesday blog reflections with a link to a TED Talk by Brene Brown on “The Power of Vulnerability.”

Sunday I was intrigued by Tim Bruster’s sermon “Rest for the Weary”, and looked up a book he mentioned by Nicholas Carr entitled “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

So today my interest sparked even more when I came across a TED Talk by Professor Sherry Turkle about her new book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”

One of the most disturbing things she discusses, is that research indicates there has been a significant drop in empathy among college students in the last decade. Our digital technology, especially the ever present smart phones, makes it much easier to escape from those moments when we feel vulnerable. And it seems this kind of “attention deficit disorder” makes it much harder to learn how to engage in compassionate, meaningful conversations.

Turkle, who teaches at MIT and has been at the forefront of innovations through digital technology since the 1980s, emphasizes that it is crucial for families to become more intentional about putting boundaries on distractions. In order for meaningful conversations to happen and for “sacred stories to be heard, we need to have times and places when smart phones are put away, and the wise power of vulnerability be discovered and understood. According to Turkle, parents need to understand what’s at stake in family conversations — “the development of trust and self-esteem,” “the capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy” — and to recognize their own vulnerability. “Accept your vulnerability,” she says. “Remove the ­temptation” to be distracted.

The problem is not the latest phone or other technology. But she says that if we don’t become much more intentional about setting boundaries and making opportunities to be vulnerable and for conversations to emerge, then the problems of diminishing empathy will only get worse and misunderstandings will do tremendous damage to the integrity of our communities.

Here are some links to a presentation by Professor Turkle on empathy and an article in the MIT News.

Sherry Turkle: We are Having a Crisis of Empathy
3 Questions: Sherry Turkle on “Reclaiming Conversation”

Grace and peace,

Len

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