Empathy: The missing culture in Nigeria

DANIEL Goldman, the foremost emotional intelligence protagonist, defined empathy as the condition of being attentive to emotional clues, and the showing of sensitivity and compassion to the concerns and needs of others. In capturing this definition, he used the analogy of a breastfeeding mother who can easily discern when her sucking child is in need of breast-milk, even without the baby making an express demand. He surmised that this is made so simply because the mother was empathic to the needs of the baby. Emphathy is not sympathy. Sympathy or compassion is feelings of pity and sorrow for others. Empathy involves affinity, appreciation, compassion and concord.

In our context, empathy is understanding that women are physiologically and psychologically different from men. Empathy is understanding that the rich and the poor have different tastes in life. Empathy is understanding that a Caucasian and a Negro would interpret life differently. Empathy is understanding that human beings are equally unequal. Empathy is equally understanding that our nation- Nigeria, is presently in trouble and needs urgent salvation that can come only through Nigerians themselves.

It is no hidden truth that Nigeria is lagging behind other countries of the world in major spheres of life; and that we have become an object of monumental derision and ridicule by the international community. What could be the reason for this slide?

The reasons are not farfetched – all that emanates from Nigeria have always been corruption, killings, diseases, wars or war mongering and poverty. While in other climes, technology is growing by limps and bounds, medical scientists making ground breaking discoveries, we in Nigeria are still unable to feed our teeming population with decent meals, losing precious lives every day to preventable diseases such as cholera, measles and malaria. Challenges that other parts of the world overcame in the 1800’s is what we are still battling and grappling with today.

Most worrisome is that the solitary effort in putting our map on the world stage – human relations – is presently under corrosion. Yesteryears, communal living was symptomatic of an African culture and indeed our forte; unfortunately, today, we are now being taught how to live in peace by the same Western cultures that idolised our sense of fellowship during the grimmest era of our national growth.  And having made a mess of what was a dash to us by God, heaven appears now reluctant to meet Nigerians at our points of needs, unless we show that we are now mature enough to handle people and assume bigger responsibilities.

How many Nigerian political leaders are truly empathic about the situation ordinary Nigerians find themselves in today? As a Southerner, have you ever imagined for once what it feels like to be a Northerner, and vice versa? As a leader, do you truly understand what it means to be a follower, and vice versa? As an elected officer, do you understand the expectations of those who handed you the mandate? These questions if properly answered, will help us create solutions to the many problems we are faced with in Nigeria and transform our cosmic consciousness.

A time like this, when restiveness is the order of the day, when there is disenchantment from every part of the country, is the most ideal time to share and show empathy to those different from us.  Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), Dutch philosopher and theologian, said, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.”

We as Nigerians must imbibe the culture of compassion and empathy for one another. We must begin to imagine for once as a Northerner what life would have been as a Southerner. Would I still hold the same fixated opinion as I do presently, if my mother tongue were Ibibio, Ijaw, Edo, Ogoni, Urhobo, etc?  What if I was born and raised in the South would I have still been a muslim?

We should be able to ask ourselves questions. As a political leader, have I shown sufficient empathy to those who elected me? Have I been accountable and responsible enough to those whose mandate I carry? What if I were an electorate, what would my opinion be over the current hardships faced by the commoner be?  What if I were an unemployed graduate? What would be my perception of the leadership of Nigeria?

The best and most effective way to solve any and every problem is to first look at the issues from the perspective of the flip side. That is where real solutions begin from. The solutions to the challenges of this country lie in the hands of Nigerians being creative, and creativity stems from the condition of the heart. The only fence against the world, is a thorough knowledge of it. The defence we have against our myriads of challenges is in the quality of our hearts. Money cannot buy wisdom; money cannot buy inner peace. Not even human intelligence can solve all of the country’s problems. The solutions to our problems reside inside each of us. For too long, we have ignored the power of a heart of empathy; yet that is what is missing in our nation today.

We may never solve the entire problems of our human conditions in this nation completely and permanently. No nation has. But, what remains crucial for us, is that we keep on trying – that we do not permit our challenges to crush us to the ground, either physically or psychologically.

It is this writer’s judgment that until Nigerians become developed and become emotionally mature, which is to be found in the acceptance of this concept, in a way that it becomes a subject matter for the entire society, we would remain in the woods. God forbid. God bless Nigeria.

  • Ozekhome, a constitutional lawyer and civil rights activist, writes from Lagos.
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