Empathy: it is the ability to see through the eyes of others or to appreciate another person’s situation or experience. Alfred Adler said, one can empathize when s/he can “[see] with the eyes of another, [hear] with the ears of another and [feel] with the heart of another [person]”. Mother Theresa once said, “if you judge people you have no time to love them”. John Steinbeck also said, “you can only understand people if you feel them in yourself”.
So one cannot or may not fully appreciate how another person feels until s/he can put herself or himself in the person’s shoes. How can you understand someone if you are not in another person’s situation? How can you fully understand someone if you have not experienced his/her life events? And even if you experienced a similar situation, are all situations unnecessarily the same? And even if they are close to being identical, how can the impacts be the same on completely different individuals with different other life circumstances and/or if the events occurred at different times or different stages of their lives.
Often, I have seen people judge sick people, mock those with disabilities, face financial difficulties or may have made mistakes. The worst and most intolerable for me is when people judge those in grief, mourning or in severe difficulties. How is that ever acceptable or a good thing?
You Really Think You Know?
Recently, I was having a conversation with someone whose close family member under 40 had been given a new terminal cancer diagnosis. Although this individual knows anyone could be diagnosed with cancer and is certainly empathic to others, she recognizes she had not fully appreciated the gravity of such a diagnosis on individuals and families until now. She said, “I never knew how it felt until it happened to us”. That definitely resonated with me.
There is nothing more frustrating than someone who does not know you situation judging you so harshly. People think they know what you could have done differently or could be doing in your situation which may have been extremely overwhelming and when you may be struggling to keep your head above water so you don’t drown. And they think they know best, really?
No Formula or Script to Follow:
Life has no script to follow and no two experiences are the same. Whilst situations may look similar they may not be necessarily identical. Also, people react to the same situations differently. How each person copes each situation or even seemingly similar life events are influenced by many factors:past experiences, social support, socioeconomic circumstances, past trauma, mental strength, emotional stability, other stressors, level of awareness etc.
Moreover, life leaps and bounds. All kinds of things happen to people through no fault of theirs. Individuals have different strengths, capacities and limits at the same time. They may not have played any role or wished any misfortune on themselves.
Having this awareness is the first step to developing empathy. Inability to appreciate these factors is a sign of detachment to humanity and a sign of one’s limited or narrow understanding of life. People without empathy have no compassion, tend to be insensitive, reactive, cruel and self-indulgent.
It is important to learn about others and their perspectives. It is important NOT to claim to be an expert of someone else’s life or situation. How can you be? How is that possible?
Empathy is a basic principle and social skill in life. It the ability to recognize the pain of others and to recognize when your actions may be hurtful. Empathy helps you reflect, exercise restraint and to care about others. Learn to care, learn to empathize. It is neither useful nor wise to inflict more harm or pain to those who are already down.
Be kind always, learn to care. No one has monopoly over life’s hardship and grief. Everyone has his/her turn.
May 23, 2020