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Die Student
Pretence is the death of empathy

This is our job

As human beings I think we’ve gotten very familiar with the term “society”.

We have somehow managed to use this term as a scapegoat for problems and responsibilities that are intended to be ours to deal with as people, but instead we toggle the burden of ownership and responsibility to suit our personal outcomes – thus sacrificing the greater good. A good example of this is what we have allowed empathy to become in “society”.

We’ve actually convinced ourselves that in certain situations it makes sense not to care about the other person but rather about getting our jobs done or fulfilling our obligations.

It’s become a concept people pass on to “somebody else in society” to be responsible for depending on the circumstance.

A good example is when someone loses a loved one. Although we may say we care for one another as people, realistically we don’t necessarily expect empathy from everyone who would come into contact with the bereaved. In reality it actually becomes the responsibility of the person(s) closest to the bereaved to show sincere empathy and everyone else has less ownership over helping them heal.

We wouldn’t expect the insurance company workers to necessarily come to the house of the bereaved and start cleaning the house or cooking. We’d just expect them to walk in with paperwork, voice their sympathy and leave – whereas we’d expect the family members and close friends to stay the night, offer emotional support, clean the house, cook and help organise the whole funeral.

Maybe this is where we’re lowering the standard of the whole concept of ubuntu because we expect empathy from some people instead of all people.

Ubuntu is for everyone

Ubuntu means “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – directly the saying translates to “a person is a person because of other people”.

The saying doesn’t say we are people because of family or friends only, it puts the responsibility to care for one another on everyone who identifies as a human being.

A possible reason for there being so much tension in the country and in our schools especially is because we say we care for each other (and maybe we do in theory), but practically people don’t actually feel cared for.

Everyone is looking for love and sincerity in a “society” that has made the two more of an abstract concept than actions we should all be committed to fullfil. We have to start taking ownership of our individual identity within “society” and our obligation to connect with other people and stop expecting someone else to do it.

Pretence is the thief of empathy. People crave authenticity and sincerity, but instead we’re becoming more committed to “faking it till we make it” while ignoring the real struggles people are going through.

Pretence is the thief of empathy. People crave authenticity and sincerity, but instead we’re becoming more committed to “faking it till we make it” while ignoring the real struggles people are going through.

I have a lot of hope in this country, but I don’t think it’s in our own best interest to ignore some of the pressing and sometimes uncomfortable debates and issues within for the sake of putting up a good face. Be bold enough to have conversations with and to face people who are affected by things that might make you feel uncomfortable to confront so that we can start learning how to help the hurting heal.

Empathy isn’t just in caring for the needy, it’s also about hearing the stories of people who say they are in pain and feel left out. Listening to and believing people’s lived experiences can sometimes be the only way to show empathy towards others.

The statistics may show that the world is improving overall and I think knowing that is absolutely necessary to keep having hope and a positive perspective, but we can’t just classify people as statistics.

Empathy isn’t just in caring for the needy, it’s also about hearing the stories of people who say they are in pain and feel left out.

We need to work as hard on improving the lived experience as we do on improving our statistics. At no point should we allow ourselves to believe that it is okay for our hearts to stop breaking for one another’s pain and suffering. I never want to lose my empathy, and I never want to be allowed to do so. This is why I am asking it of myself and you as the people who actually make up “society” to raise our standard of empathy for one another.

We can only build this nation if we start building up the individuals in it who actually have potential and are just in need of sincere encouragement and support to help them get across the line.

I believe that we all need empathy in order to forge connections amongst one another so that we can improve the country and world we live in.

So I pose a challenge to everyone for the week ahead:

  • Raise your standard of empathy as an individual in the classroom, at work, at home and anywhere else you go.
  • You’ll know you’ve raised the standard of your empathy when it leads you to action. So do something that will show the people you encounter that you really want to see them succeed and you really want to understand their story.
  •  Engage in a polite and friendly conversation with someone who has a different outlook or political view to you and maintain respect between each other while trying to find common ground learn from each other.
  • Try to assume that the people you engage in conversation with know something that you don’t and practise to listen to others with that in mind. Listen to learn, not to respond.
  • Challenge the people around you to do this same challenge and let’s make kindness the next great act that will shock the world.

Don’t expect the country to improve if you’re not willing to contribute. Spend less time complaining about how much more the government could be doing and channel that passion into action in your community.

Talk won’t change this nation, action will. Once we start caring for one another we will start working together, once we start working together we will become a nation of even greater strength and riches.

  • Wamahlubi Ngoma (21) studies MBChB at Stellenbosch University on the Tygerberg campus. She originally came from King William's Town in the Eastern Cape. She also serves as Primaria of Huis Francie van Zijl.
  • This article has also been translated into Afrikaans. To read the Afrikaans version, click here.

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