“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”
Empathy. Our culture doesn’t encourage it. Our political landscape disparages it to the point of excluding all civil discourse. Our reward is criticism if we display empathy. But it really is this all-important choice that allows for deep, honest human interaction. We just don’t take time to think about it. Lack of empathy destroys dialogue and demolishes friendships. Absence of empathy creates chasms between people who might actually have something in common. I know, it’s a tough sell in a market where the tough sell is imperative if one wants to get one’s way. But, maybe we don’t all need our own way. Maybe if we add differences and empathy, we can create a world that we all want to live in. Let’s have a look.
Situation: youngest son is hollered at by neighbors who threaten to take his dog away. My first thought: son probably did something not great; neighbors are probably assholes having a bad day.
Empathy says I need to remember that youngest son had a dog at his dad’s house; his dad abused the dog and did not care for it properly. Indeed, his dad did much the same thing to youngest son. Of course, I can say, “Who cares? They’re asshole neighbors.” It’s harder for son because his experiences are different from mine.
Everyone has their own experiences – we teachers call it “background knowledge.” Whatever lives we have lived color the way we see life now. The thing is, it is often easy to forget that not everyone lived/lives as we do. And, even our own children see a shared experience different than we do. It’s really interesting when my sister and I talk about “how Mom was” when we were little or “what Dad did” when we were growing up. My sister and I are six years apart, and you’d think we grew up on different continents. In short, we don’t know everyone’s stories; leave a little room for them.
Situation: a friend believes that a certain political candidate should be elected to the Oval Office. I disagree in a strong way. Do I need to try to strongarm this friend to believe in my candidate? Should I belittle their candidate of choice?
Empathy encourages dialogue. The whys and wherefores of our beliefs can be civilly and intelligently discussed; ultimately, we can agree to disagree. The same is true on almost all social issues. There are many sides. I lived in Soviet Russia where, even at the end of the regime, you just didn’t say certain things. We can say almost all things here; empathy suggests we do so meaningfully – preferably, without sound bites and with real conversation.
The thing that inhibits empathy here is that often social issues have an incredibly personal charge to them. Issues often reach to the core of how we define ourselves and how we want our world to be. From religion to justice to dietary choices, beliefs are central to how we live. Being able to listen to a point of view and engage with that person without trying to convert them to a different way of thinking is the mark of an evolved human. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t stand up for our beliefs – no, we totally should do that. We can to it decently – with empathy and understanding. My sister used to say that just because you listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to accept everything he says as your own truth.
Situation: eldest son prefers limited contact with family right now. He is living his own life on his own terms. I miss him terribly. Should I try to manipulate him into “returning to the fold?”
Empathy instructs me to take a step back. This son lived at home for 19 years. From third grade to high school graduation, I worked at his school. When he was in high school, I was his Russian teacher, junior English teacher, and in his senior year, I was his college counselor. All the while being his mom. Might this young man need some space? Empathy says: take a deep breath and be supportive from a distance that he defines. It’ll be okay.
This is the hardest situation for me, but perhaps one of the most important ones. Aside from potentially threatening or extreme situations, we have to let people live as they see fit. Surely, we can offer advice, but we are not called to make everyone else like us. I am not perfect. You? Didn’t think so. I can love a family member or friend who chooses something that I might not have chosen. It’s called grace – it’s being empathetic enough to know that everyone has his own path.
You see, life is a journey. We all have miles to go to develop empathy, but if we can at least try to understand where someone else is coming from – why they believe what they do without trying to change them, we might have more peace, and we might just learn something, too. It’s not easy. There are jackasses in the world – but, I don’t have to be one of them.