As someone who is, for all intents and purposes, an empath — and has been one all her life — I sometimes find it hard to understand why so many people cannot put themselves in the position of another human being and ‘see the world through their eyes.’ For me, particularly in terms of people who are struggling or suffering, I sense their pain.
I’ve always been this way.
What does that mean — to have empathy? Even as a very small child, I sensed when others were upset. I felt it in my body, even before words were spoken. I sensed the sad and angry dynamic between my parents long before they admitted that things were falling apart. I cried while watching the Vietnam war unfold in real time on the evening news, acutely feeling the grief, confusion, and loss of thousands of refugees aboard crowded boats that took to the sea as Saigon fell. I remember weeping with joy when Apollo 13 astronauts returned, splashing down into the ocean in their charred space capsule, still intact after a harrowing flight home. In 1989, I cheered with East Berliners as the Berlin Wall fell.
These moments of connection to the human spirit felt natural to me, and I accessed them easily. And for others who are like me, we inherently possess the capacity to ‘sense’ the experience of others.
But many among us, do not.
Why is empathy a quality we should cultivate?
A recent survey of college students found them sorely lacking in the empathy department. In fact, today’s students are much less empathetic than their predecessors over the past thirty years. For me, this is a cause for real concern because if we lack empathy, we lack the ability to see the humanity in others.
We see only other when looking at those whose views, skin color, culture, or way of being in the world does not jibe with ours.
“As the world grows smaller and more connected, the role of empathy grows larger and more important than ever. Where no empathy exists, conflict breeds.” ~ P J Manney, Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy.
Conflict arises when we begin to see someone’s uniqueness as foreign or (God forbid) evil. If we can vilify the other, then we can come up for excuses for why we do not have to treat that other with anything resembling dignity or respect. We see it every day in the mudslinging discourse that passes for news in this county. If someone doesn’t agree with someone else’s opinion, instead of trying to see where that someone is coming from, the fear of their otherness breeds hatred and vitriol. They are not part of our tribe. Name calling starts. Denigration starts. Slurs and stereotypes and all manner of fear gushes forth. The feared other must be put in his or her place. We must get rid of what we don’t agree with. We must convert these horrible heathens.
It is a story as old as time.
Wars have been fought over the vilified other. Women were burned at the stake as witches because they were intuitive like me. Children who look different or dress uniquely or act strangely are bullied, ostracized, and emotionally tortured by their peers in school. These days, the bullying takes place online as well. Some of these beautiful, sensitive kids are driven to cut themselves or even commit suicide as a result of their mistreatment.
As an empath, I am sometimes doubled-over in pain over my sense that our inhumanity is winning this battle. Especially when I see anyone invoking their religious beliefs as a means to justify or excuse their lack of mercy, kindness, and care for other beings, whether people, animals or the natural environment.
Cruelty and the ability to ignore suffering are not religious values.
As a Buddhist, I adhere to the notion of cause and effect. Whatever I do, comes back to me. That knowledge informs my choices and my actions toward myself and others.
So, how can we change things?
In a presentation on using empathy as a teaching tool that I did with a colleague at a writing conference, we advised attendees to ‘tell stories.’
There is evidence that when we know each others’ stories, we begin to soften up to our differences. Our life stories feel unique to us, but when we share them, we find many people can relate to our tales, whether they are tales of joy or woe, anger or pain. The pathos of our human experience does not understand (or accept) boundaries. We are much more alike than we are different.
So, the next time you are at loggerheads with someone, try to stand in their shoes.
Think of a conflict you’ve had recently. Write it out from your perspective. Then, take on their role and their voice, and write it out from their perspective. You would be amazed what insights you can gain by doing this.
Examine situations from the perspective of the silent person, the baby, the dog or the cat.
Practice seeing the world through the eyes of the other. You cannot easily demonize someone if you’ve walked the rooms inside their head.
Does that mean everyone can be understood? No.
Some people are, unfortunately, lost causes.
For me, pedophiles, sex offenders, serial killers, and those who abuse animals or children fall into this category.
But for most of us, there is a human being somewhere inside us that simply wants the best that he or she can make of life.
An equal shot, or at the very least, a shot. Understanding that basic longing that we all possess can go a long way toward dismantling distrust and building a better world.
It is in our interest to do so, sooner rather than later.
If you are curious about the concept of empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen has an Empathy Quotient test that you can take online to see where you fall on the empathy scale.