One of my former students recently lamented what she saw as a lack of empathy in the world today. I have to admit that I have been fortunate to have encountered empathetic individuals over and over again. They have taught me how to forget myself and surrender to a state of pure understanding.
Just what is true empathy? The dictionary describes it as an awareness and acceptance of another’s feelings and emotions. In a sense it is the capacity to put oneself into another’s heart. Roman Krznaric, a founding member of The School of Life in London, has described some of the components of empathetic behavior in his book, Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People.
Dr. Krznaric notes that empathetic individuals are usually highly curious about strangers. They are genuinely interested in learning about other people, especially those who seem different from themselves. On my most recent vacation I continually found myself wondering about the men and women that I met along the way, particularly those who lived in tiny towns that appeared to have been forgotten by society. So many rural areas have little or nothing to offer their citizens. Life is a dreary prospect when the local economy is blighted. I saw so many abandoned businesses and factories that may have once provided hope but were now simply ghostly reminders of work that is now more and more difficult to find.
The people who lived in such places looked as though they were somehow trapped in a never ending cycle of want. They sat in front of broken down trailers or homes with littered yards, seemingly having nothing to do even in the middle of a work day. I imagined the dreariness of their lives. I felt that I understood why they might be attracted to the craven promises of politicians promising a way out of their situations. I also saw that they were proud people who would not want my pity. They held their heads high and stared straight at me in defiance.
They reminded me of a family to whom my grandmother had introduced me long ago, a group from the hills of Arkansas who lived in the most primitive conditions that I have ever seen. My grandmother cautioned me to suspend my judgement of them for they were hard working and kind according to her measure. I have never forgotten the way my grandma honored their humble hospitality and the treatment of respect that she insisted that we give them. I suspect that my first experience of empathy came at that moment.
Another empathetic habit is challenging prejudices and finding commonalities. I suspect that this is sometimes difficult for most of us because we rarely leave our own comfort zones. I grew up rather isolated from people who were different from myself. My mom taught at the local Catholic school so that my brothers and I might attend without paying tuition. Most of my classmates were middle class and many had well educated parents. While my family satisfied the government definition of poverty, my mom was adept at hiding that fact from us and the outside world. We fit in not realizing that we were imposters.
As a young woman in my twenties I began to encounter individuals who had experienced life in ways far different from my own. Their parents were classic blue collar types. They cleaned buildings for a living and drove dilapidated old cars. They often lived on the economic edge and had little interest in education. At first I felt as though I had landed on the moon when I met them but eventually I learned a great deal from them. They were not book smart but they had a common sense that made them quite intelligent in the ways of the streets. They were good people who showed me how to relax and enjoy the smaller victories in life. They were the kind of individuals who would not have thought twice about running into a burning building to rescue a puppy. I liked them very much and grew to respect them enormously. I found that in many ways I had more in common with them than with my college educated friends.
Empathy often comes from trying another person’s life. When I was in high school one of my teachers called that walking in someone’s shoes. He urged us to consider others’ circumstances before making judgements. Over time I have been in so many different situations and some of them have been quite dire. There were times when my mother was very ill that I felt abandoned by all of society. I understand what it is like to be responsible for someone and to have every door shut in my face. Along the way I always managed to find kind souls in the most unexpected places, people who held out their hands to help me when I was the most desperate. I learned to share my story and admit to my weaknesses. I realized that none of us are ever able to be all alone. We must sometimes be willing to accept the kindnesses of strangers.
Learning to be empathetic is not that difficult as long as we are ready to just listen. Often all a suffering individual needs is a friendly ear. At those times we don’t even have to actively find solutions to their problems. They only wish us to understand. When action is demanded we should be ready to go the extra mile for them like my long time neighbor and friend, Betty, has always done. It was well known on our little street that her door was open 24/7. Sometimes we didn’t even have to knock if we had a problem. She would see us heading for her door and meet us there, inviting us inside for a cool drink, a bit of dessert and a whole lot of loving wisdom. I suspect that over time Betty has helped countless people with her folksy intuition. I can’t remember a single time that I left her presence without feeling as though I had just conferred with an oracle of Delphi. To this day she is willing to drop everything to make a weary soul feel whole again. She has mastered the art of empathy just by being totally there for whomever seeks an audience.
When we focus on the lives of others rather than our own we are well on our way to becoming empathetic. I have been fortunate to meet many such people and my hope is that my former student will be lucky enough to enjoy such encounters. It is an amazing experience to realize that somebody has looked into your heart and truly understands and loves everything that they see. Each of us has the capacity to be that kind of person. We just have to begin the process by taking one step at a time and risking a suspension of judgement. It is not really that difficult to be empathetic once you get the hang of it and the rewards for being so are immeasurable.