developing empathy

How I Met My Apathy |On Developing Empathy|

We can all agree that experiences and knowledge helps us understand the world. It helps us learn, seek and understand our surroundings. But what if we have learnt apathy subliminally?

Most of us will react to injustice in the world, it’s fair to say that we might not do something about it but … we will still feel something. Maybe it’s the bystander effect that takes precedence - I know I’m definitely guilty of it, where I think I’m too insignificant to make any change, so why even try?  

And yet, I watch every unjust situation with knots in my stomach. 

Recently I was thinking about the nursery rhyme, 

“Piggy on the railway, picking up stones, 

down came the engine driver and broke piggy’s bones.

 “Ah!” said Piggy, “that’s not fair.” 

“Oh!” said the engine driver, “I don’t care”. 


This rhyme was something that most children gleefully sang along to in nursery. But when we come back to the lyrics of this very violent scene of an accident, we realize that this glee wasn’t real. This poor pig got run over, broke his bones, told the engine man that he had hurt him, and all the man did was turn around and say that he didn’t care. 

There are multitudes of rants here, but I’m going to try and focus on the ‘apathy’ bit of it. I do believe, to some extent, that we all develop some version of apathy through subliminal cues. We’re taught that we shouldn’t/can’t feel bad for all the people who are suffering. Don’t get me wrong. We all have kindness in us. But we are taught that if we dwell too much on kindness and empathy, we will end up with nothing. So it’s better not to care than to be consumed. Fair point, cause I read this other quote “Too much empathy leads to self abandonment”. 

So now what? Do I see someone suffering and abandon myself to help them? or do I leave them to resolve their sufferings and close my eyes? 

The bad news here is that there is no correct response; you literally can do what you choose to do (sorry, this isn’t a profound self-help philosophy). 

But let’s put it in perspective.

Recently I was traveling and I saw these children selling masks under a bridge, who also just happened to be begging. My first response was “These kids must be in school, we shouldn’t be giving them money cause they’ll just buy nonsense and it won’t make a difference …”

And then it struck me; where had my empathy gone? These were children born into a life they had no control over; doing what was asked without question; literally trying to make the most of their day. They weren’t ‘suffering’ but yes, life could be better for them, maybe. 

I was taken aback by myself for being so cold, and yes, it made me think. I found myself holding their parents accountable, “How could they have children when they don’t have basic resources to sustain.” and hence, turning them into monsters, and the children into victims. Always the philosopher, I was trying to tame my internal outrage. 

I remember as a child feeling so bad for individuals who lived on the street and begged. With efforts to hush the annoying child that I was, I was told that they could change their ways and be better, but instead, they chose to be in this situation. And with all the subliminal messaging, I got with the program and cared less cause I am not the bad guy here, right? They are. Very soon, my non-caring turned into apathy, and I no longer looked at places that had suffering. 

A friend pointed out that a lot of empathy towards people also depends on the level at which you can relate to them. Yes, say hello to my privileged sense of guilt that has taken the reins now. I’ve come to realise that people in fancy cars have never taken notice of these children, but it’s always been our standard auto bhaiyas and drivers that have shown more kindness to them. 

I am torn about where to go with this. There’s so many ways to address these thoughts and none of them are right or wrong. What works for me is, talking to my outrage and my guilt, trying to figure out what's my role in it, and eventually check-in with my intentions regarding what I can do for the situation. To be honest, awareness has its own ups and downs. But it does turn the outrage from apathy into actionable behavior. I think it’s important to try to be empathetic to the self too, because everyone deserves kindness.

And that includes you. 

Developing Empathy Developing Empathy

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Malvika Lobo


Malvika, a seasoned therapist with over 7 years of experience, specializes in Animal Assisted Therapy and Arts Based Therapy. She is the smother of animals, a chai enthusiasts and has a hot take on all things.

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