While I was away, I wrote most days. Not all of it had a direction or purpose. I thought a lot about empathy though, and what happened in Charlottesville makes the topic even more important right now.
Empathy is the action of understanding, awareness of, and sensitivity to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences, whether they are past or present. It is also the ability or capacity to do this action. (I roughly paraphrased that from Merriam Webster). It’s about sharing someone’s feelings, thoughts, or experiences even though you yourself may not have had the feeling, thought, or experience yourself. It’s not the same as sympathy, which knows someone is suffering and feels sorry for him/her. Empathy doesn’t involve pity or sorrow or feeling bad for someone because of what he/she is going through. It is being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see through his/her eyes.
Because it is an action, you might think it is easy to teach empathy. Not so. It’s not an observable action, like dribbling or shooting a free throw. It also requires several other actions before you can build to the complex action of empathy. First, you have to be well acquainted with your own feelings, to understand your own thoughts, to remember your own experiences and how they made you feel. If you can’t own your feelings, you can’t begin to understand the emotions of others. That’s why so few people are capable of real empathy: they aren’t experiencing their own emotions for some reason. I know it’s a cliche to ask “How do you feel about that?” and the question is used to make fun of therapy a lot, but the fact is that a lot of people never ask themselves that. If they do, they may not answer honestly. You don’t have to ask the question constantly, but sometimes it’s a necessary examination.
If you can figure out how to experience and own your feelings, then you’re ready for the next step. This one seems too obvious, but it’s essential. You have to realize every other human being has thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are DIFFERENT from yours. They may be similar in some ways, but we are all unique creatures, so even if we agree on many things, there might be one sticking point. More often, we find we disagree about more than we would like to. If we can recognize that other people have different thoughts, feelings, experiences, priorities, we then have to take the step to set aside our ego, to accept that there is no more or less value in the way I think, feel etc and there is no more or less value in the way another human thinks, feels etc. It may be different, yes, but it is no better or worse. We have to let go of the urge to exert our feelings, thoughts, experiences on others.
This leaves the door open to the final step of empathy, which is to take off our own glasses and use the other person’s lens to look at the world, to put his/her filter on things. Sometimes we can do this through talking to people. Sometimes we have to do it through hypothetical scenarios, knowing something about the other person’s circumstances and trying to think about what we would do, think, say, feel if ever put in the same situation. This is where literature has been shown to help in building empathy. By using your imagination while reading about others, you can translate the skill to the real world and new people you meet. I don’t think this needs to be limited to reading. I think you can also develop this skill by watching fictional TV and movies.
I thought about how age plays into this. If empathy is in some ways about experience, isn’t it harder for young people to be empathetic? I decided that’s not the case. What you’ve experienced in life is not dependent on your age. There is often a correlation, but it is not true for everyone. Neither is how much a person has read or watched. So the assumption that older people have more empathy is false.
I also thought about how we acquire empathy. I mentioned briefly that reading literature is one way to teach empathy, but I can’t help wondering if there are some natural characteristics that contribute to the ability. I am very empathetic, and yes, I’ve read and watched a ton of fictional material. I’ve had a wide variety of experiences in my life. I’m also in touch with my emotions, whether or not I vocalize that awareness. I have a good memory, which is also helpful because I remember how I felt in various situations. I listen to others, which is key as well because in order to empathize, you have to hear what other people are saying. But I often pick up on what people are thinking or feeling without talking to them extensively. I’m legally blind, so body language and facial expressions aren’t always my clues. I wonder if there are other types of receptors that some people have that pick up on what other people are putting out. In college, my best friend resented my ability to know exactly what was going on with her emotionally without her telling me anything. On her 18th birthday, I told my little sister not to rush to get her tattoo, to think about it a little longer. She was horrified that I knew she planned to get it that day (and got it anyway). My students always say I really understand them, how they feel, what they are thinking.
Being empathetic is exhausting though. There is a step further, being an empath. Sometimes I think that’s what I am because I can’t turn it off. Like a sponge, I absorb all the thoughts and feelings of those around me. All the angst, all the anger, all the pain, all the happiness, all the excitement…. I internalize it and it stays in me until I can unwind from it, which isn’t easy either. I have to sort through which thoughts and feelings are mine, which are coming from people I care about, which I can let go because the person who put them out into the world shouldn’t matter to me. Being empathetic makes me good at teaching, but it’s also part of why I need a break from it. It’s one of the reasons I’m an introvert, getting my energy from alone time because rather than feeding my own energy levels, other people tend to drain them.
And, of course, empathy is a much larger issue than my musings because if more people had it, we could live peacefully side by side instead of letting hatred fester in our hearts until it explodes in insanity like that we saw in Charlottesville this weekend. Those people clearly haven’t begun the first step of understanding their own thoughts and feelings. I have little hope that they’ll ever get to the next point of recognizing that other people are different but no less valuable. And those of us who are empathetic ache for the people who have dealt with this hatred and ignorance for so long that it feels next to impossible to fight against it again. Those with empathy feel the rage that progress is inconsistent at best, Sisyphus rolling his stone at worst. Unfortunately, empathy also lets us see the fear of those who come together with enmity to hold on to ignorance. Yes, we can understand them without excusing them. For me, feeling the fear of the white supremacists is the intersection of empathy and sympathy. I understand their fear of a new world order that seems like it’s taking from them (which it is not), but rather than sharing in their fear, I feel sorry for them, that they aren’t able to be filled with love. They are sad small people. I don’t know that they have even a drop of humanity in them to start on the road to empathy.