on empathy

(an essay written last year)

The other day, I watched a video on the importance of empathy. Then the next day, I watched a video of why empathy is harmful. One week in my philosophy class, I read theories that empathy is essential to moral reasoning. Another week in the same class, I read theories that empathy destroys altruism.

Clearly, no consensus exists on what to do about this–for lack of a better word–phenomenon. And while I’m not one who need answers to all her questions, I was frustrated by the mixed response from experts and scholars. Does empathy lead us to neglect others unlike us? Does it make us selfish? Or does it help us understand others through ourselves? Do we fight empathy or do we practice empathy? The more I read, and the more I watched, the more I felt that the question of empathy was pressing.

A week later, I still don’t have an answer (no surprise). Thought, to be fair, I wasn’t looking for one. As with all of those big, important, life-giving questions, the search really isn’t for an answer but for a working definition, with no promise that it will last, just a hope that it will work. That, I believe, I have found.

But backtrack first. Empathy, as of now, is loosely considered “the propensity to feel with our fellow man” (Maibom 2014). Inherent to this definition is three ideas: 1) we must know how our fellow man feels 2) empathy is a state and 3) empathy is passive.

Consider this case.

Avery’s dog dies. Her friend, William, has never had a pet. He does not know what it is like to have a pet, much less have it die. William has no experience with death.

Classically, if Avery is looking for empathy, William is a poor shoulder to lean on.

I mentioned that recently I watched a video on the importance of empathy. In it, the narrator teaches its viewers that empathy isn’t just recognizing how someone is feeling, but sharing in that feeling with him/her. Empathy, the video says, rarely begins with “At least” (at least you’re alive, at least you have food to eat) but rather, starts with “I understand how you feel. You are not alone.” This was illustrated by a sad bunny in a hole underground and an empathetic bear climbing down the ladder to join the sad bunny in the deep dark. Empathy, the video teaches, is a choice.

I agree, choice is important here. When empathy is a choice, then it is no longer the bear’s being in the dark that made him empathetic. It was his climbing down the ladder. And similarly, it’s not how well William can identify with Avery’s grief over a dead dog that makes him empathic. It’s his understanding that her feeling is a deep, dark underground and his decision to try to understand it.

To further clarify the importance of choice, it’s helpful to think about love. In The Incredible Lightness of Being author Milan Kundera writes about compassion: to be loved out of compassion, he says, is somehow less valuable because the love is not freely given of desire, but of some unintentional emotional vulnerability. The same, I think, can be said of empathy. Empathy that is given out of an emotional vulnerability existing from the mere fact that we ourselves identify with the experience is not truly empathy. This is the empathy that we watch turn into a source of selfishness. This is the empathy that leads us to identify with people like us, and to otherize the unfamiliar. If we allow empathy to be limited to that which we naturally and passively relate to, then empathy becomes merely a reinforcement of what we already know to be true about the human experience–specifically, our own.

I want to venture further than the video, and propose that empathy must be more than a choice: it must be an active process, as continuous as the act of waking up. Empathy is a conscious trying to feel with others based on an understanding that emotionality is universal but feelings are individual. This distinction of empathy matters to me because it overturns the 3 points previously mentioned: it frames empathy as not something we have, or we are, but something we do, only by doing continuously. Moreover, it allows us to empathize with others on experiences we’ve never had and to be better to each other.

(This is not just sympathy: sympathy is feeling good or bad for someone and does not require emotional contagion. Empathy manifests as the emotion that the object of empathy is feeling.)

I can illustrate. If I treat empathy as a choice, like the video said, then I might comfort a friend in the way the video taught me: “I understand how you feel. You are not alone.” But anyone who has grieved or been extremely sad knows that this phrase is only comforting because of the good intentions of the speaker. Otherwise, it’s annoying. No, you don’t understand how I feel. How could you? You’re not me.

If, however, I treat empathy as a process, I might comfort a friend differently: “I want to understand how you feel. How do you feel? I want you to feel that you are not alone. How can I support you?” When empathy is a process, it comes in the form of questions. It exists only in the moments when the boundaries of our understanding of others are expanding.

College brings its challenges and lessons, and some people learn these lessons more quickly than others. As I learn how to give others and myself the appropriate amounts of grace and prudence, patience and motivation, I have found myself confronted with the fact I seem to have avoided many of these trials, or perhaps traversed through without even realizing I had. Because of this, I do not think I’m the most understanding of people.

But after recent re-evaluation, those instances when my friends have been struggling with something I don’t understand, or the moments of personal conflict when I have tried my best to understand the other side, attempted to know another’s deep dark underground the same way I know my own, they seem like they might actually be when I was at my most empathetic.

In the other instances when I thought I was being empathetic (a.k.a. most of the time) , I have been passively so, believing that I am a “natural,” presuming that I can understand how others feel. I have asked questions, because I know they make people feel good. I have given advice, because I know people who feel helpless like to be told what to do. Am I really being empathetic? I’m not sure. I mean, I do care about others, but a lot of it is just EQ. I think for most of us, empathy is treated as just something we’re born with, that we assume we have and are acting upon.

More dangerously, my “empathy” has been reserved to those I naturally understand. My “empathy” has reinforced what I believe, and I have neatly sorted the experiences of others into the categories and meanings I have made for my own. When I recently experienced an emotion I had never felt before, I was surprised at how incapable I was of processing it, much less putting it into a category and ascribing some meaning or life lesson to it. And yet, I have acted as if I can do this for others and I have proudly called it empathy.

And so, I am re-conceptualizing empathy–not as a state, not as a choice, but as a process. I want to internalize that I can never fully understand how a person feels. I want to ask better questions, more questions. More importantly, I want ask these questions more often, and to more people.

I know that this revelation of mine is at worst, obvious and at best, basic, but it’s been valuable for me to think about. I recently read a quote that said “When I was younger, I admired intelligent people. As I grow older, I admire kind people.”

And maybe I’m waking up, but I’m starting to understand why.