In December 1968, NBC aired an episode of the original Star Trek series, titled “The Empath.” In the story, powerful aliens called Vians kidnap Kirk, Spock and McCoy, along with Gem, a mute woman from another planet. The Vians torture Kirk and McCoy, the latter to the point of death. (The brutality of the scenes, mild by modern standards but jarring back then, prompted the UK to ban the episode for 26 years.) Turns out the aliens are using the Starfleet officers to test Gem and see if her people are worthy to rescue from an exploding star. Gem has the power to transfer another person’s injuries (both physical and emotional) onto herself. Thus, to save McCoy and her world, she must endure the same agony and risk her own death.
Were the Vians to pose a test like that for the human race, I worry we’d never pass.
The briefest glance at one’s newsfeed will reveal dozens of media stories and hundreds of comments of people behaving badly. While recent frustrations—from politics to pandemics—may fuel this outrage, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Our collective struggle to show empathy for other people is as old as … well … people. But these days it seems elevated to a character trait that a lot of folks brag about.
Personal rights (which are usually just selfish wants) before the common good. Accusation over acceptance. Ridicule rather than encouragement.
These days we seem to revel in our cold-heartedness.
During an especially tough period in my career, I served as a spokesperson on site closures and layoffs by my employer. There were business reasons for those decisions, and I always brought them to the conversation. But I also tried to bring something else: empathy.
Empathy can come naturally, but it must be nurtured. Whenever possible, I was onsite when the announcements happened. I sat in on employee group meetings, listening to people’s questions and concerns, doing my best to feel what they were feeling. I made sure I knew and could explain how the company planned to support employees and ease the impact on communities. And in media interviews, I always acknowledged the pain felt by everyone impacted.
Even now, more than a decade after that period ended, I keep a list of all those locations in my files. Why? So I will always remember how those decisions affected real people.
My attempts to empathize, to bring a modicum of compassion to those moments, didn’t change the outcome. Indeed, I paid a price of my own for doing so. But I like to think it mattered to the people, even a little. And if I had to relive those years, I’d choose empathy again.
Communicators should be the champions of empathy. I’m not talking about empty platitudes that we think play well as soundbites. I mean genuine care and compassion for others. I mean being brave enough to challenge our clients to a higher level of kindheartedness.
If we don’t help them see the value of empathy, who will?
In “The Empath,” Gem overcomes her fear of pain and death to partially restore McCoy, nearly dying in the process. When the Vians refuse to intercede, Kirk points out that they’re measuring Gem’s worth by a standard they fail to meet.
“You've lost the capacity to feel the emotions you brought Gem here to experience,” he cries. “You don't understand what it is to live. Love and compassion are dead in you.”
The Vians eventually admit their flaw, finish healing McCoy and agree to save Gem’s people.
Later, when the rest of Kirk’s crew learns of Gem’s empathy, her willingness to risk her life to save another, one of them remarks, “I would say she was a pearl of great price.”
More than ever, it’s vital that we bring that pearl to our world, too.