If you want to show someone you care, you need to show up. Virtual empathy does not replace your presence; it is merely the easy way out of trying to be kind to a fellow human. Writing a few words on a website or tracking the progress of an ill person are certainly thoughtful gestures. The problem is that there are those who, having made those gestures, will believe their quota of meting out kindness to another has been fulfilled, that they need not do more.
This is where, for lack of a better term, “internet empathy” can be dangerous. Jewish tradition teaches that some things have no limit; kindness is one of them. So why am I worried about the supplanting of real chesed (loving kindness) with the virtual brand?
I’ve been following some of the articles — including one by Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner — that have appeared in the aftermath of the tragic death of 2-year-old Ayelet Galena to a bone marrow disease. The authors of these pieces write about how they have become better people by reading, along with 14,000 others, of the progress of this critically ill child. If the family chose to share their lives with others in such a public way, and get support from them, that is their choice. I hope it helps them to know so many take an interest in their suffering and tragedy.
Where I, and I hope others as well, become disturbed is not in the impact on the family but on the gawkers, who believe they are assisting.
“People can look at it as voyeuristic, but people are forming really strong relationships,” said Deborah Kolben, editor of the Jewish parenting website Kveller, an online Jewish parenting site that, like the Forward, had several pieces about Ayelet.
Personally, I see this kind of online empathy as falling squarely on the voyeuristic side of things. The family of Ayelet Galena has enough real relationships with people who are their actual family and friends to see them through their time of mourning. If you are genuinely concerned about the fate of ill children, don’t spend your time reading blogs, volunteer in a children’s ward at a hospital. Start a drive to collect toys for children with critical illnesses. Find a suffering family near you and bake them a challah or bring them dinner one night. Even better, organize a group of people to do that for someone in need. Websites like Mealtrain make it very easy to keep track of such donations so that a family doesn’t eat vegetarian lasagna five nights in a row. The bottom line: Channel your real motivations to do real things, not to sit in front of your screen typing platitudes like “stay strong” or “thinking of you.”
And if you can’t think of ways to help others on your own, there is a lovely new book to get you started, “1000 Mitzvahs,” written by a woman who wanted to pay tribute to her late father by doing 1,000 acts of kindness in his memory. None of these acts are difficult; they are harder than reading Facebook or blog posts, but they can have an actual impact on a person who is in your physical orbit.
Taking the easy way out of expressing empathy to others by thinking you’ve accomplished something by going online is human. Realizing that virtual activity will yield only virtual consequences, and that taking real actions which will yield real ones, may be harder but will actually produce a result of an increase in kindness and compassion in our fractured world.
Beth Kissileff is a freelance writer and the author of the forthcoming anthology “Reading Genesis.”