the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.
This morning I was in a yoga class and had chatted quite a bit with the lady on the mat next to me before class began. About a quarter of the way through class, she got up and left with only her phone. About 20 minutes went by and she came back sobbing but trying to pull it together. She lasted about 3 minutes before she got up, gathered her things and left. During the 3 minutes she was laying there, I wanted to reach out. I wanted to touch her hand or somehow let her know that I was there because she was clearly not ok but you know…I’ve literally only known her for about 28 minutes at this point and then you’ve got social distancing…so many thoughts. After she left, I spent the rest of the class praying for her comfort, her safety, the safety of her children and husband, for her to have peace with whatever wrecked her so fiercely. What I had for her was a deep amount of sympathy. I acknowledge that she was struggling and I wanted to comfort her. But without knowing her circumstances and what was going on, I could not have empathy for her. I could not understand what she was going through and relate because I don’t know if I’ve ever gone through a similar experience. See the difference? Empathy and Sympathy both come from Greek roots and are often confused. However, empathy is much more than sympathy.
Looking at a relationship standpoint, think back to the last argument you got into with your significant other. Did you hear to respond or hear to really listen and understand? If you heard to understand, most likely you showed empathy and the argument that was dissolved quickly. If you heard to respond, the argument probably escalated in a hurry. Don’t worry, you’re human. We tend to think we’re doing a lot better than we really are and more often than not, we hear to respond instead of listening to understand. Empathy. You’ve probably been in a situation where someone heard you and responded quickly without understanding your perspective or your need in that situation. You may have felt judged and you may have felt truly unheard. You can understand how you just made your partner feel. Now you can do better.
Think about your children, if you have them. Does their frustration and fit throwing come from them “being bad” or do they need you to listen to them and understand better? I can’t count the number of times in the last week that my son tried to tell me something and then had to repeat it because I was only hearing him half way. No wonder he was frustrated with me. I can empathize with him on this. I have been in these situations before and it felt irritating, rage inducing and unfair. I will do better.
Think about your community. Did you visit the friend down the street who just had a baby to hold the baby, maybe bring a gift and split after 20 minutes into the visit because “she needs to rest” but really it was so you could run to the store and keep up with your schedule? OR did you offer to come sit with the baby for a couple hours, do a couple loads of laundry, her dishes and bring a meal she could freeze for next week? Did you check on her after a few weeks to make sure that she isn’t suffering from PPD? Gents, did you help that new dad knock out some of his honey-do list or bother to ask him what he really needs right now? His world has been flipped upside down too but society has told him that if he says anything, he’s weak and unsupportive of his wife. How did you help the man who lost his business because of Covid? How did you help the family whose house burned down or their kid was just diagnosed with a terrible illness? Have you reached out to the single mom or the couple who are new to the neighborhood? Empathy. You’ve been there. You can relate to at least one of these circumstances, if not all. What did YOU need in those moments? How can you do better?
Now think about our country. Empathy would go a long way here. If you are white, like me, you can’t share in the emotions or experiences that your BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) friends have experienced but you absolutely can sit down and ask them to tell you about it. Listen to understand, not to respond. You can have sympathy here but that’s not going to change things. Empathy and educating future generations on why people have different levels of melanin in their skin, why it’s not ok to judge others, why nobody is better than anybody else, why it’s not ok to dehumanize anyone, ever. These are the things that are going to make a lasting change. Additionally, look at your circle. Is it filled with only (or more than 80% with) people who look, think, vote, and were raised like you? If that’s the case, you’re part of the problem. Expand your circle. If you’re fearful of this, ask yourself why. Ask yourself why you believe what you do about people? Why do you have the unconscious biases that you do? Is it because of media? Because of what your grandma told you when you were 5 years old? Because you met one person that had less than stellar behavior? Are your beliefs fair to judge an entire population on? Are your beliefs still serving you? Your community? There’s incredible greatness in differences. Greatness that you are only open to seeing and living if you step out of your norm to develop those relationships. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much empathy you develop as a result of those relationships. If nothing else, by putting some or all of these practices into play, maybe we’ll be able to say, “this is how I’m doing better.” Hopefully, this will allow our children to say “we live in a better world than my parents grew up in.” Instead of “we’re still fighting the same battles my ancestors did.”
P.S.- If you’re like me and you want to do better, you’ll definitely want to check out this week’s podcast dropping Thursday morning. I interview 3 friends of mine who are all black, all from different upbringings and all phenomenal individuals making a HUGE impact in this world in different ways. We have a very real and raw conversation about the world, what we need for change and how people can do better. Make sure you tune in by searching Recognizing Potential on Spotify or Apple podcast platforms.