Welp, Mari and I took a bit of a blogcation. It was quite lovely and I, for one, feel refreshed and ready to word-vomit all over this place. So let’s get to it, shall we?
Over the past 5 years or so I’ve made a Christmas wish for humanity. In 2014 I wished that everyone could experience empathy for people that aren’t in their own tribe. In hindsight, that was waaaaaaaaaaaay to much to ask for. If 2014 taught me anything it taught me people use empathy as a tool in conversations but they’re not getting what it means. I think there are good reasons for this. Empathy is difficult. Empathy also leads to undesired self-reflection. It is much easier to take the easy road of applying your beliefs to everyone and think you’re awesome and no one else “gets it”.
So a definition seems appropriate here:
The ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Many people conflate empathy with sympathy. I choose to view it this way to avoid confusion: Sympathy is “feeling with” a person, such as compassion or commiseration; Empathy is “feeling into” someone else. It is the ability to project one’s own personality into another person to better understand that person.
Over the course of 2014, as empathy became a buzzword, I observed many people attempt to demonstrate that they are empathetic. Some people succeeded and it made my heart happy. Some people failed (I’m definitely in this group–it’s a work in progress). Some of these fails were spectacular or made me chuckle. I had someone tell me, “I’m trying to be empathetic but everything you think and say are just wrong.”. I appreciate the initial effort but this person isn’t taking things far enough, in my opinion.
I had another person, after saying he treats all races the same state, “no one cares about race but race-hustlers”. He refused to listen to racial groups alleging institutional racism because he believed “it doesn’t exist”. When I disagreed and poked some fun (I had predicted earlier this would happen) he went completely off the rails. He listed numerous things that he does for charity, launched into a diatribe about what he perceived were my personal failings (which he had to imagine/make up), then passive-aggressively tell me that empathy is telling me that he’s sorry I’m so angry (which he again made up). That was a complete empathy failure during a purported demonstration of empathy. Good times.
I’m tempted to be disheartened about these developments. However this year I’m choosing to be hopeful about them. I’ve known the above referenced people for a long time and even those efforts are significant for them. On a broader level empathy is injected into political campaigns, lawmaking and normal conversation at a higher rate. Empathy is aspirational. I think these are good things and I’m going to work harder to get it right. I’m hopeful because the elevation of empathy as a desirable trait will do us all well.