CanMEDS Health Advocate
The Empathy Deficit

The Empathy Deficit

Barack Obama on The Empathy Deficit



The following text is taken from the commencement address at Northwestern University in 2006, the full address is in the Youtube video below.


There’;s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else’;s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who’;s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman who is cleaning up your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’;s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’;ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, went to the same schools and you can send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’;s going in your own immediate circle.

Not only that - we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us that our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage our most selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’;re all lazy and weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’;t learn and won’;t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes on the other side of the globe are somebody else's problem to take care of.

I hope you don’;t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It’;s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’;s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential - and become full-grown.



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Watch the full commencement address by Barack Obama: