“Empathy” is an incredibly complex word – one that has been bandied around with various connotations – and so, considering how flagrantly I, too, have thrown that word around, here are some clarifications on my intentions.
In elementary school, the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy” was explained simplistically – “sympathy” is feeling sorry for someone; “empathy” is feeling sorry for someone because you have gone through that bad thing yourself.
And, in all honesty, we could just stick with that definition — it is an adequate one, after all. But there is so much more power inherent in “empathy”. Rather than passively observing someone’s pain, we must actively internalize empathy, actually imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, even when we have not experienced the same situations. This active engagement with someone else’s pain stems from our deeply-seeded desire to share, connect, and belong to a nurturing social structure.
(Apologies in advance for the incessant references to Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization – this book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in how empathy has shaped humanity and how deeply ingrained it is in all of us.)
Although life as it’s lived on the ground, close to home, is peppered with suffering, stresses, injustices, and foul play, it is, for the most part, lived out in hundreds of small acts of kindness and generosity. Comfort and compassion between people creates goodwill, establishes the bonds of sociality, and gives joy to people’s lives. Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is our core nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization. ( p.10 The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin)
We have learned how to project outside of ourselves and imagine how we would react in the same situation because we crave safety and camaraderie. This ability allows us to make decisions that knit together a nurturing environment, one that protects all interdependent members.
All of us have fallen into self-pity, seen only the struggles in front of us rather than the wealth of resources surrounding and buoying us. So how do we develop stronger empathic impulses in spite of our constant navel-gazing?
The simple answer is to seek out others who foster empathy and allow their energy to rub off on us.
The dissidents who have resonated deep within my heart have addressed global social issues by exposing their individual hopes and struggles – Brother Ali, Malcolm X, Jean Grae, Chris Abani, bell hooks, Portia de Rossi.
By opening up and sharing their painful experiences, by allowing themselves to be vulnerable, they have provided to others the opportunity to experience empathy, to shift their perspectives, and to ultimately make more socially-aware decisions.
Empathic extension is the only human expression that create true equality between people. When one empathizes with another, distinctions begin to melt away. The very act of identifying with another’s struggle as if it were one’s own is the ultimate expression of a sense of equality. ( p.160 The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin)
The life each of use sees through our own two flawed eyes may be the “only” life we think matters, but that life is so inextricably linked to others that we cannot continue to live with blinders to the struggles for survival and equality around us.
So, for today, allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable with another person. Step outside of your anxieties and stresses. Step into someone else’s position. Feel how that sense of connection buoys you.
And do it again tomorrow.