Empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective.” It is being able to imagine one’s self in another’s shoes and feel what that would be like.
It makes sense that as a society, it would benefit us to have more empathy rather than less. We are better equipped to make decisions that benefit all parties involved when we can imagine the desires, needs, and questions of others. Practically, increased empathy would allow governments to better protect the rights of all. Increased empathy in social and cultural scenarios would make more peaceful and loving interactions. After all, if we feel what another feels, we’re more likely to make choices that benefit their well-being.
More empathy is good for everything and everyone, right?
As a whole, empathy may benefit society, but on an individual level it’s a bit more complicated.
The Other Side of Empathy
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to feel others’ feelings. I’ve been able to imagine others’ joy as well as their pain. It’s why the animated film Watership Down traumatized me as a preschooler (I still can’t get that image of bleeding rabbits out of my head!). Growing up, I always wanted my books to have happy endings. I couldn’t bear to have unresolved issues for characters. It’s why I often befriended the new kid in elementary school, because I knew how difficult it is to be new.
It’s why after watching Hotel Rwanda in college, I collapsed onto the floor, gripping my dorm room desk chair, weeping until I fell asleep.
Empathy is hard, because while it’s fun to share others’ joy, it’s hard to feel other people’s pain. And as humans, we really like to avoid pain.
From Human to Thing
Unfortunately, there are a lot of circumstances these days making it easy for us to avoid feeling. It’s visible whenever we go online – just look at the kind of abuse flung at people for a dissenting opinion. Many people say things online they would never say in real life.
It’s easy to throw abusive words to some nebulous other – a photograph consisting of ones and zeroes, not a real live human being. When this other does or says something we don’t like, we don’t worry about a filter because they aren’t human, and therefore undeserving of the niceties reserved for family and friends.
The best example of real life dehumanization may be identity politics – when a person is not part of the “in group” and therefore, not a person but a “thing,” they can be treated like a thing. Things are disposable. Things can be ignored. This is why people of color do not feel safe walking down the street, for fear of a cop brutally injuring or killing them. It is why women continue to have their bodies legislated against. It is why some legislators are determined to prevent people from peeing in certain bathrooms.
But what if we could flip the narrative? Once “things” become people, we begin to empathize with their circumstances. It is a lot harder to allow their situations to continue. The question is, what are the best ways to foster empathy? How do we rehumanize out groups?
The Power of Art
Art is a great way to increase empathy. Literature, music, movies, dance, visual arts – all are paths to increasing the imagination. All show us routes to walk in other people’s shoes. They speak to human emotion, and while they don’t always use words, the stories the arts tell can open hearts and change minds. Beyond this, art can lead to action.
This is why the types of “stories” we share are so important. This is why it is so important to have diverse voices. This is why it is better to have more people creating and sharing, rather than less. It is why we need to feed our hearts and minds with a steady diet of diverse “stories.”
This is why it was such a big deal to have the movie Selma – a story that is so crucial to the history of this country – directed by Ava DuVernay. It’s why the show Transparent is so important. These are stories and situations that thirty years ago would not have been possible. With technology and social networks, more people are creating these kinds of stories which allows us the possibility of accessing them.
And this goes even for the stories we find unsettling.
Beyond Our Echo
If we truly want to increase empathy, we must understand those with whom we disagree. It means spending time understanding the reasoning of those who have the polar opposite opinion of our own, rather than rendering them “things.”
I’ll be honest, I find many Trump supporters’ behavior troubling. Their violent behavior at political rallies upsets me, however, I know they behave this way for a reason. I know they have families and friends. I know they are human beings. I do not condone their behavior, but I understand their motive.
Even one who commits terrible crimes is still a human being.
Understanding a person’s choices does not mean we condone such behavior, but perhaps it opens the possibility for conversation. Conversation may be enough to address the root cause of these behaviors.
In short, empathy gives us the potential to be better humans.
This week, I’d like you to do two things: First, the moment you get annoyed or upset by someone else’s behavior, imagine yourself in their shoes. Try to understand why they’re behaving that way. Notice how this affects your feeling and behavior.
Second, share this with at least one person. By talking about empathy and focusing on it, we increase the number of possibilities to empathize with others, and that is good for everyone.
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