Empathy denotes being able to imagine another person’s emotions, experiences, motivations, or perspective. It involves being able to acknowledge the existence of other perspectives, and the realization that those who hold them are as human as we are.
I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot lately – what it means and what it doesn’t mean (and why I sometimes struggle with it so much…) Here are four aspects that stood out to me; I’d love to hear what you think!
1. There’s no need to be stingy doling out empathy. If someone doesn’t favor a particular cause, an “easy out” is to say the following: why bother supporting X when you should be worried about Y? For example, I’ve heard versions of all of the following:
- “Why bother to advocate for women in the US when women face terrible treatment in other countries?”
- “Why are you spending time discussing the plight of immigrant youth specifically when our country in *general* is experiencing homelessness and poverty?”
- “Why are you discussing the injustice of the death of someone in X demographic? Don’t you know people in other demographics are killed, too? Why aren’t you talking about them right now?”
Depending on how this is phrased, it’s often a complete red herring OR a false dilemma. You can care about multiple causes with varying weights. Spending time reacting to one injustice, one exploitation, or one vulnerable demographic doesn’t mean it is the “only one” you care about. Would you picket a bake sale for cystic fibrosis because it was “ignoring” the plight of breast cancer? That would be absurd. Nor does this mean that you need to preface a discussion of a specific social issue with the promise that you recognize other problems exist – again, that may likely be as unnecessary as announcing before a Cancer Run that you’re going to read a long list of other illnesses that you recognize exist because you don’t want to offend those with non-cancer diseases.
Finally, just because an issue does not affect “everyone” in a country or “everyone” in your area does not mean it is not worth considering. To quote MLK, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He wrote this in response to those who critiqued his participation in peaceful non-violent protests of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, because (among other reasons) he was a non-Birmingham native – an “outsider”- who they believed should not be worried about what happened there.
2. Empathy does not devalue our own experiences. It’s easy for me to identify myself by what I’ve overcome, achieved, or suffered, and to guard that identity jealously. Experiencing pain or a challenge in an area of my life – and surviving it – makes me feel strong. It is something that I am proud about. It’s an emotional badge. However, far from naturally making me more empathetic, it often makes me want to evaluate and judge the experiences of others. After all, if I’ve come out the other side, if I’ve overcome something or achieved something, no one else should be able to say they’re as good atthat specific thing as I am, or that they understand it the way I do…at least, not until I’ve carefully evaluated their right to have their own perspective. Right? No, not really. Not at all. It’s good that I own my experiences, and I can be happy and proud of something, but it’s not my core identity. While challenges can change you, and that growth can be something you choose to accept or even appreciate, your experiences are not you, and the perspective of others is not a threat to your identity. Trying to understand the perspective or motivation of another person does not erase, negate, or disrespect what you’ve been through.
3. Empathy acknowledges that understanding is important because experiences like suffering have both objective and subjective dimensions. Acknowledging this does not mean you deny objective truth or objective reality.
The objective dimension here is obvious: the factual situation, event, or experience in objective reality. Their house burns down. They lose a child. They start a job. They lose their job. They lie to others. They are lied to by others.
The subjective dimension, however, is more difficult to see and therefore more difficult to gauge – and by gauge I really mean judge. An individual’s past experiences, mental health, emotional maturity, physical state, and many other variables will affect how they experience the situation andhowthey are able to (or how they choose to) react to real, inarguable events that occur in objective reality. From a moral perspective, these aspects may even hinder the free will of their response. Seeking to understanding what their experience is like is empathy, and it does not – and this is important! – mean that you’re denying the existence of objective truth, merely that understanding how another person’s proverbial glasses are colored (rose or otherwise) will help you see why they react to objective situations and events as they do. This aspect of empathy is especially difficult for me, but I am working on it. I think. And finally, very importantly…
4. Empathy does not necessitate agreement. Of course, you can (and easily do) empathize with someone with whom you also agree, but the two are not synonymous. This last thought is especially relevant in religious, moral, or ethical debates. It can be easy, I think, for some to feel uncomfortable trying to understand someone with whom they are sure they disagree – The Other. I see people of ALL political and moral stripes throw up their hands (physical or virtual) and declare that they cannot understand WHY people do the things they do…it’s a mystery! It’s a paradox! There’s just no understanding some people, so why bother trying! And they are not particularly interested in trying to understand because they are afraid it would necessitate agreeing with The Other.
This mindset, however, is just incorrect. Understanding the motivations of others simply allows us to see them as three-dimensional humans worthy of basic respect and human dignity – it does not require that we condone the wisdom, justice, or practicality of their actions.
So, why is any of this important?
- Far from weakening us, empathy makes us stronger. Empathy is NOT some virtue for pansies who don’t have anything better to do. If there is any value in the perspective or emotions of others, understanding that widens my perspective and gives it greater breadth and weight. Recognizing that others have human dignity that is equal to ours – even gross, icky Others of all and any descriptions – takes honesty and humility, and is quite frankly terrifying. Nope – definitely not a weak virtue.If, after seeking to understand the mindset behind a different perspective, I still completely and utterly disagree with it, that’s fine; it’s still a valuable exercise. In that case, my perspective itself has been tested and perhaps come out stronger than ever. In other words, empathy is additionally valuable because it may allow you to argue your own perspective or belief more clearly and persuasively. People are always more likely to listen to you if you treat them like, well, people.
- Ignoring the need for empathy turns us into tone-deaf people with no grasp of subtlety. For example, in my English courses, some students have difficulty grasping the distinction between their own perspective of a character in a text and the author’s perspective of the same character. Seeking for empathy trains our brains to understand verbal and language clues that express the tones, attitudes, and emotions of others. It makes communication of all kinds possible.
- As a Catholic, I believe that recognizing the deep humanity of others is an aching human need, and that seeking to understand others reflects our attitude toward God. When Christ says, “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me,” (Matt 25:35) he’s not just talking about physical sustenance, but also respect, understanding, connection, and empathy.
What do you think? Is there anything important you think I’ve missed or left out?