Empathy is needed to make this world a better place! While most of us would like to believe we are empathetic, the truth is simply, we are not. The ability to feel another’s pain or suffering is not something that comes naturally. Empathy is intentional. Which means it takes effort and maybe even real work. Empathy is a choice. We can decide to care, or not to care, enough to put ourselves in another person’s shoes for the purpose of understanding their experience. But empathy also strengthens relationships. Knowing that someone else gets it (whatever it may be), is a relief to the person who is dealing with trauma and or drama. But it is also an opportunity for the one who is expressing empathy to grow by adding value to others.
Empathy, by definition, is understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, although the two are used interchangeably. Sympathy is acknowledging another person's emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance. The difference is that one expresses personal understanding, while the other communicates understanding the experience of others.
I recently experienced the death of my husband. I am now a widow. In the past, I have always been able to express my sympathy for those who lost loved ones. But since my husband’s passing I have more than just an understanding for the experience. In times past, I could acknowledge the loss with genuine concern and understanding. But now, I feel the pain of others in a way I have never felt before. I know the sense of disbelief and feeling of emptiness. My responses and emotional support for others are very different now because of my own experience.
I want to be clear; empathy is broader than one’s personal experience as a reference. Truthfully, I believe that the greater task is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you haven’t had the exact same experience. That is intentionally attempting to see the world through another’s lenses. Not just people who are like me, but people who are of different contexts, races, nationalities, religions, and levels of education. This behavior makes room for compassion and relationship building. This is how we add value to others.
Because of my recent experiences, I know what it feels like for individuals not to consider what I have been through and what I am presently going through. They feel sorry for me, but they don’t have the capacity to empathize with me. I don’t judge them, but I do recognize what is lacking! All of us can do a better job in this area. If we just start with our circle of friends, or co-workers, transformation can take place. This is how we can change environments and organizations. This is the “Love your neighbor as yourself” that Jesus commanded. (Mark 12:31). Jesus’ example of empathy is a commandment second only to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” That is significant!
I wonder what your circle of family and friends will think and feel when you start “walking in their shoes” and seeing life through their lenses?