The effect of technology on empathy has been a topic of concern for several years, often in relation to worries about overdependence on technology and social media for social interactions. With more and more of our lives lived online, we simply do not interact with each other face-to-face as much as we used to. From families unable to put down their devices to the negative psychological effects social media can have on teens, we seem to be losing sight of the value of developing face-to-face relationships and their importance for the health of individuals and communities alike.
At The Urban Helper, we believe that the practice of face-to-face empathy is the foundation of strong neighborhoods and communities. We believe that the most meaningful practice of empathy is an active one. Empathy is a social and professional skill that requires development and maintenance like any other.
This week, The Urban Helper challenges you to take active steps toward practicing face-to-face empathy and neighborliness on your block. Your specific challenge might depend on how familiar you are with the people who live near you. Keep in mind that exercising empathy is about understanding the perspective and experience of someone different than yourself. That difference could be anything: income, race, circumstance, age, background, culture, political affiliation, identity, gender, life experiences—whatever the differences may be, your goal is to be curious and find commonalities with the people you live closest to.
If you don't know your neighbors, then this week is the week to knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and get to know one another a little bit. Even just a quick hello is an important first step.
If you already know your neighbors, pick one and imagine their life. What would be helpful to them? What would be an act of kindness? It doesn't have to be big. Pull some weeds, make a casserole for a busy family, roll the garbage bins back from the curb. Perhaps you suspect your elderly neighbor is isolated or lonely—in that case, a simple conversation over a cup of tea can make a great deal of difference (and maybe give you some ideas for how to reach out next). If you can’t think of something based on what you know about your neighbors, then take the opportunity to ask or offer.
The Benefits of Empathy
If you think practicing empathy is all about helping other people, think again. The benefits that accrue to the empathizer are actually pretty amazing. So put down your phone, grab a plate of cookies or harvest some oranges off the tree in your backyard, and go make your neighborhood a more empathetic place!