2020 was the year of empathy fatigue

We were too ready to abandon our older selves.

body on gurney pushed by medical workers

Medical professionals load a patient on a gurney into an ambulance at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, March 9, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Living through a year like this will, if you let it, teach you things about yourself.

Early on in the pandemic, we were all learning about the coronavirus and COVID-19. It was (we thought) a danger mainly to the old and infirm. Like many of the relatively young and healthy, I imagine, I found myself reacting to this news with relief. But it wasn’t just a feeling of personal safety. There was a subtle sense that, maybe, this pandemic wasn’t so serious after all.

My reaction disturbed me, but I also found it puzzling. The human propensity to cut off part of the human family as “other” and less deserving of empathy is familiar enough. We turn away from people of a different nationality or race, people with a disability, or people who are homeless: That’s not me. That is someone fundamentally different from me. But old age? All of us, if we are lucky, will be old someday. And yet it seemed so easy to accept a literal decimation of our elders, our future selves. 

It would be one thing, perhaps, if COVID-19 took people gently, painlessly, with family and friends gathered around. But it doesn’t. They die alone, terrified, gasping for breath.

In April, I wrote about Shakespeare’s King Lear, reflecting on the fragility of human institutions and our heightened moral responsibility in a deadly pandemic. Now I realize King Lear is the perfect 2020 play for another reason, too. It is very much a play about old age, and about the experience of being discarded by a younger generation to whom you are no longer of use:

O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause, send down, and take my part!

Lear banishes the child who would have lovingly put him up, and put up with him, in his dotage. He leaves himself at the mercy of offspring who, because he no longer wields power over them, and because he is, admittedly, a royal pain, efface his dignity and cast him out to die alone, on the heath, in a pitiless storm. 

This year we were too ready to abandon our old people to that same storm and heath.

I suppose explanations aren’t all that hard to find. Most simply, #capitalism — unless you’re wealthy, you are valued according to your ability to work and produce profit. Retirees need not apply. Moreover, old people today, if they are not holding high public office, really are largely obsolete: biologically, they no longer reproduce; socially, they can’t keep up with our fast-changing digital world; morally — well, if they have wisdom, we don’t let it guide us. When we are young, we don’t like to contemplate our own frailty and eventual demise. Perhaps, if we let ourselves fully empathize with the old, we would have to face our own mortality.

All that figures into it, I’m sure. But I think there’s something else as well, something you might call empathy fatigue. Truly taking seriously another person’s suffering, allowing yourself to feel it, too, compels you to do something about it. When there’s too much pain around, and when you’ve learned through experience the limits of your power to ease it, you have to find a way to shut off. Almost any way will do; it’s a matter of psychological survival. This year, it frightened me how easily and automatically I performed this trick. I don’t think I could have done it so readily a decade ago, or two. Empathy fatigue accumulates over time, maybe irreversibly. It makes us harder and less human. I’d like to live in a world where that doesn’t happen.

About the Authors & Contributors

Katie Wilson

Katie Wilson

Katie Wilson, a contributing columnist, is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.