When I was in high school, my mother took me to see ‘Dancing With Wolves.’ As the theatre lights dimmed and the opening credits appeared on the screen my mother (who had pre-screened the film) leaned in towards me and whispered, “Don’t get too attached to the horse.”
I have always been one of those sensitive souls who seems to feel the pain, joy, sadness, and frustration of others, whether they are a real person, or a fictional animal. I cannot watch Dumbo without crying because I am imagining that I am the mommy elephant being separated from her baby. When I saw Monster’s Inc., I really felt the fear of a small child who is afraid of the monsters in her closet. Despite my overdeveloped sense of empathy (which is at once my best and worst quality), I feel that in general, there is a lack of empathy in this country, which is impeding our ability to move beyond rhetoric and unite as Americans.
It’s important to not confuse empathy with sympathy. There seem to be a lot of folks out there who ‘feel badly’ for the situations other folks are dealing with. Sympathy can be a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Feeling sympathy allows us to feel compassion for others and can lead us to show mercy or extend a helping hand to a person in need.
Empathy goes a step further. When we feel empathy, we vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of another. Through empathy, we can put ourselves in another set of shoes and allow ourselves to step outside our own reality and experience the reality of another individual. The reason that empathy is so important, in my opinion, is that it allows us to let go of bias and judgement and see a person or an issue from a multi-faceted and broader standpoint. When we think about an issue or a person from a broader standpoint, we gain a broader understanding of that issue or person. A broader, more complex understanding of an issue or person, allows for more variables, and requires us to think more deeply (even if it makes us feel uncomfortable for a little while). Thinking deeply is what opens ourselves up to deeper levels of learning, understanding, humanity, and puts us in a place where we can we can talk about our differences without feeling threatened by them, and potentially come up with some solutions.
I have heard people say that empathy is something we either have or we don’t. That it cannot be learned. It does seem to come more naturally to some than to others. My older daughter, despite being extremely sensitive and emotional when it comes to her own feelings, has tremendous difficulty putting herself in someone else’s shoes, while my younger daughter who is more stoic about showing her own emotions, constantly surprises me by her vicarious responses to the emotions of others.
Whether or not empathy is learned or something we are born with a natural acclivity for, trying to better understand where individuals are coming from- especially individuals with whom we disagree on things- is an area where we can all strive for improvement.
We hear a lot in the media these days about tolerance. It seems that there is always somebody writing or speaking about the need to be “tolerant” of each other’s differences. When I hear somebody asking me to “tolerate” somebody else, it really rings of being asked to “humor” them. We tolerate (or don’t tolerate) behavior from toddlers and puppies, and other entities that just don’t know any better. Showing “tolerance” doesn’t seem to move us any closer to understanding each other. Nor does it seem to bring us any closer to creative solutions to difficult issues.
I would rather see people trying to empathize with each other- put ourselves in each other’s shoes, imagine ourselves being raised by each other’s families, with each other’s values. Think about how our own individual histories and stories have brought us all to the place we are today. We are products of our life experiences and we all have value and validity. We are never going to look at the world in exactly the same way. But if we can expand the way we look at the world, and think about issues in a less dualistic way then it gives us a lot more room to search for common ground and work together to find solutions to the problems that affect us all.