The absence of empathy

by | March 17, 2017 1:11 am


Last week in church, an elderly woman with a bad leg made her way slowly to the rear front pews. I recognised this woman who I have been seeing in church for nearly nine months. Because she is often wearing a white outfit and a permanent black beaded necklace with a black earring to match. Her white outfit and black jewelry suggests that she is mourning.  Beyond pleasantries, I have never really had a conversation with her.


Today she approaches the fifth row from the altar. I seat in a pew behind and watch an interesting drama unfold.

The only space available on that fifth row was five persons away from the end of the pew. With her bad leg, and uncertain gait I expected that the first person on the pew would encourage everybody else to shift inward and give the elderly woman the first space on the pew. To my utter dismay, these five persons decided to move out of the pew and in spite of how uncomfortable it was, they pushed her to the middle of the pew.


Age range of these strange five would be between 19-32. It did not matter that this woman may as a result of her age be more incontinent than others and would therefore require the use of the convenience  often. It did not matter that this woman maybe more claustrophobic than all of them and would easily feel more choked/uncomfortable in the centre of the pew. The sheer discomfort of being squashed in the middle of a pew by this elderly woman mattered not at all to the five young persons. It took my spouse and another gentleman in church (both well over 50) to pull the woman out of that centre pew and re-assign her another seat close to the edge. The smile on her face said it all. ‘Thank you’ she said in a whisper. She seemed relieved. The group of five did not even bat an eyelid. Could this have been their grand ma, their mother’s elder sister, their father’s cousin; would the treatment have been the same? My answer, shocking as it may be, will be a tentative yes.


Did I say strange five at the top of the page? Really not so strange. With modernization, the effect of television, globalization, the world is fast turning and there is a complete lack of empathy across board.


Africa thought it was safe for a very long time, playing the ostrich and pretending that globalization would not affect our values and traditions. I have hoped that perhaps I might be able to make a difference in my own little space by speaking to these young persons but I have found that maybe only 20% of the number I talk to on a daily basis have paid me full attention.

Demanding empathy is like draining blood from citizens of the world today. There are other more important things than stopping to smell the coffee, feeling the pain of an elderly woman, putting one’s self in the shoes of a physically challenged person, being a burden bearer, listening to another person’s sorry tale and just emotionally being in someone else’s  position and feeling sorry.

The distractions are so many to include: how many likes do I have? Would I lose my followers? Was I noticed at that party? Am I pretty enough? Am I good looking in any way? Why am I been bullied?  Why does he have more money than me? The anxiety related to all of these has led to an increase in depression and personality disorders, around the world.


While we were growing up, we were expected to give elderly persons their due, leave our seats for them in churches, assist them in crossing the road, and help them carry their groceries if you run into them in shops/supermarkets.

Today young people consider older people some kind of fairy tale working artifact and if they have their way they will have nothing to do with them either within or outside their family. This is because a grandmother/father figure ought for them really not to be mobile i.e. just sit in a chair and don’t bother me and they are confused and befuddled when this person becomes an obstacle to their daily life. For example why won’t they just go to the bathroom themselves? Because they are been dragged into the lives of these old people to help them with mobility, feed them, ensure they take their medications, and help them to the shower, it is too much trouble and does it takes so much time? They are standing in the way of their picnic, they are disturbing their outing and obliterating their time on the phone and so in today’s modern times – and this is certainly not in Nigeria alone – rather than the warm relationship we had with our grandparents, the understanding of their activities and their age, today’s generation are not empathetic and resent older persons. Except for a percentage who are traditionally well heeled or were brought up by a grandparent, the rest of them are very much like the five described in this column.


If one were to ask those five young persons if they felt they were not empathetic, their answer would be “no”. The question that would be asked by them would be: Did we not move for her to sit? What else would you have wanted us to do?

It is always clear to me that there is a complete lack of understanding of empathy these days. The world is shifting so drastically towards selfishness, personal aggrandizement, disinterest in the next human being, empathy desensitization and the lack of kindness. This has seen the rise of intolerance, mean spiritedness, high level of mental illness, accruing selfishness and breakdown in relationships. The dictionary definition of empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experience and emotions.  Therefore what it is not is not feeling, not understanding.

Family work space, schools, and community should engender the community spirit both in children and adults to help in closing the gaps which is affecting us all in all in the absence of empathy.

God help us!


 Eugenia Abu