Empathy.

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The concept of the week seems to be empathy. I see it in my work life, my private life, in my relationships with others, the books I am reading.

Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; seeing the world from their viewpoint; trying to understand their positions.

In our ever-changing, technologically advanced society, many are concerned for our lack of empathy training. I would attest to this–it used to be that we read books in school to help teach and provoke empathy, and with some of the new mandates coming down (an emphasis on test scores, teaching math and science skills, computer driven research, college preparedness), there just isn’t enough time in the day to teach it all–and empathy, an abstract, unmeasurable concept–is taking a back seat.

So, how do we create empathy?

First, I think we have to strip down all that is human–even if only for a moment. If my mind is preoccupied with my own insecurities, jealousies, feelings of inadequacy, and power relations, then there certainly is no space for me to consider someone else. They say the brain can hold approximately seven pieces of information at a time, and in today’s busy world, many of these slots are already taken. So, if I want to be empathetic, and I want to consider someone else’s viewpoint, I have to make room for it, which means I have to dump my own self-involved ruminations.

Next, I think we need to allow ourselves a variety of human experiences. These human experiences could be a large as traveling to new places, bungee jumping, or could be as small as striking up a conversation with someone outside of your social circle, tuning into a different news channel, buying a different brand. I might be a little biased, but I truly believe that everyone should be an English major, because being an English major allows you easy entrance into the worlds of many, many different characters. From Edna Pontieller, we can learn about the oppression of Creole society; from Prodigal Summer, we can learn about raising goats; from Montag, we can learn about the effects of technology on society. And, we never quite understand these worlds until we are immersed in them.

For example, I’m left handed. Now, if you are NOT left handed, you probably are not privy to understanding all the adjustments us left handed people must make in this right hand driven world. When I watch someone batting in softball, I must flip all of the body positioning in my head to accommodate for my left side; when I am writing in a notebook, I must adjust my handwriting for the spiral; when I’m writing on the board, I have to accept I will walk away with marker all over my arm, and I’ve given up on trying to draw on the computer (since I learned to use the mouse with my right hand, which is significantly altered in artistic forms). Of course, being left handed is trivial in the grand scheme of things, but my point is that you never know the ‘struggles’ of a situation until you have been immersed in it yourself. You may not understand the emotional turmoil of a long-term-relationship-break up until it happens to you. You may not understand the gut wrenching feeling of a cancer diagnosis. You may not understand the pain of losing a loved one until you find yourself in those moments. But, picking up books, expanding our circles of influence, giving ourselves as many experiences as possible, we can begin to form understandings of the worlds in which other people inhabit, and perhaps be more empathetic of the situations and decisions they must make.

When we are in situations that might call for empathy, we must consider all the various ways in which our interactions could have come off.  Since I said it, or I acted in that way, I know what I was trying to gain from the interaction, and I find that, often times, the most conflict occurs when someone reads our actions as different from our intentions. What usually happens is, I know that I had good intentions when I said that, but then you read it in a different way, and that upsets me, because I feel like your reaction is squashing on what I perceived as good intentions. But, if we can take a step back, and look at how our interactions COULD HAVE been read (even if we didn’t mean it that way), we perhaps can equate the conflict to human error, miscommunication, there really is no one to blame, we can apologize, and alter our interactions accordingly.

In my senior class, we are studying Existentialism, and one of the primary theories is that language has no prescribed meaning; we build meaning based on our experiences, our backgrounds, our judgements, perceptions, and since we all live different lives, each of us prescribe different meanings to words; my attack of the term “love” is going to be different than yours, because it conjures up different memories in each of us, and because we created language as a way to “standardize” human existence, we except everyone to understand in the same exact way we do, but we actually don’t, and we actually can probably never communicate exactly what we mean (especially in our technology driven society, when our communication virtually takes place via text). For example, I could send you a message, “OK!”, because in my experience, as an English major, I have to capitalize abbreviations of things, and the exclamation point means excitement. However, in your experience, your mom might have used capitalized messages to manipulate and control you, and one time you got dumped with an exclamation point, so, based in your prior experiences, you are going to read the message completely differently than I intended. But hey, if I have empathy, and I understand that could potentially be the situation–it had nothing to do directly with me–then I can respond accordingly.

And, lastly, I think we have to just believe there is something universal about the human condition. While people present reactions in different ways, there is no doubt that there are just some things about being human that we all go through: death, physical pain, unrequited love, rejection, failure, hunger, exhaustion, abandonment, stress, insecurities–suffering. You can call me calloused, cynical, my reactions to tragedy and devastation may appear stoic, unemotional, but I can tell you that I am still impacted by these very human experiences. In the moments I think empathy is most necessary, I’ll hear comments, such as, “I’m just pulling on past experiences”, “I reacted in an emotional way”, “I was offended”, “I didn’t know what else to do”. But, these are universal human traits as well–we ALL pull on past experiences in our interactions with other. We ALL have the capability to react in emotional ways. We ALL have been offended. We ALL get stuck in tough situations. And, perhaps if we can see people’s actions and behaviors in these very universal ways, we can forgive them for their humanness–because we need our humanness forgiven as well, since we are all guilty of the same things.

Like many other traits (jealousy, competition, self-seeking), I believe the empathy is not necessarily a stock-human setting–we aren’t born naturally being empathetic, because its easier to be angry, aggressive, selfish, and to inhabit a life of empathy requires work, programming, vulnerability, cognitive shifting–but the gift is so, so worth it.

“Empathy is about finding echoes of yourself in another person” -Mohsin Hamid

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