Empathy is the closest thing to a superpower we humans have. Forget flight and invisibility. The power to understand the feelings of another human being is god-like. It requires both imagination and intelligence to view the world through the eyes of someone of another sex, race, religion, culture or political view.
There is a paucity of empathy in the world. Turn on the TV. Go on Facebook. You’ll find more vitriol than good works, making empathy an even greater asset. To develop it, we have to challenge ourselves and be willing to admit that we might be wrong. This is a strength in itself, which is why those who refuse to see the value in empathy disparage it as a weakness.
But a man with true empathy can comfort a grieving mother without ever having lost (or even had) a child himself. A woman with empathy can feel the anxiety and despair of a Syrian refugee without ever having had her own home destroyed or having seen the splattered blood and shattered bone of her loved ones. A congressman with true empathy is more likely to seek common ground than erect an intractable facade of righteous indignation. With empathy, we harness the power to look beyond convenient sound bites and rhetoric and see injustice and oppression to which others are blind.
Empathy leads to thought and compassion. And thought and compassion win friends and allies, and engage understanding and respect.
In empathy there is power. And each of us can develop it. Here are four ways to begin:
This is how we form ideas and gain greater perspective beyond ourselves. Newspapers are important, but current events do not help us develop empathy. To cultivate the power of empathy, I advocate fiction, which is always about conflict and the human condition. Even oft-disparages horror and science-fiction genres can give us valuable insight into what humans value and how we interact with one another. (See Enders Game by Orson Scott Card, which is both a sci-fi classic and suggested reading for leadership programs in the United States Marine Corps.) Admittedly, it is possible to learn empathy through film and television. But the act of reading deeply weaves empathy into the fabric of our being. We cannot learn empathy by watching cable news.
We come to know ourselves and our world through words. As we write, we not only form our opinions, we test their integrity. Keeping a journal gives us a sanctuary from outside criticism in which we can freely express, develop, challenge, and reform our thoughts. If you disagree with someone, try writing the argument from their point of view. This exercise might not change your view, but it can help you understand another’s without the stonewalling reflex to demonizing them. Here’s a great example of how writer Jim Bosiljevac did this.
The world is not our neighborhood, our community, or our country. It it full of different people with different ideas, traditions, and perspectives. Some of them may make us uncomfortable when we filter them through our own world-view. But when we are patient, curious, and respectful, we can discover the humanity in each of us. Irrespective of the language we speak, the god we pray to, and the foods we ingest, we are all someone’s son or daughter, knowing deep fear and anxiety, and great joy and relief. Individually, we abhor captivity and injustice. Individually, we rejoice in beauty and accomplishment. Travel is not just about monuments, landscapes, and our Instagram feed. Travel is about ideas and understanding where they come from, how they persist, and why they are important.
Helping another human being in need is possibly the most potent way of developing empathy. Online donations to good causes are needed, but they do not develop empathy. By literally extending a helping hand, we figuratively put ourselves in another’s shoes. It is convenient to tell ourselves that we have no time to serve others. But this is a lie we use to shield ourselves from the growing pains of developing superhuman powers. Opportunities to serve are everywhere. Visit justserve.org (think of it as craigslist for community service) and you’ll find something with which you can be passionate and effective. And if you really want to expand your understanding, I recommend serving those in need who are not like you.
Empathy is a superpower. It is how we tap into the minds of other human beings. It is the force that expands our own knowledge of the universe. Hatred and intolerance are real, and they are the counterfeit superpowers of the ignorant. Radio-active spider bites and gamma radiation make fun catalysts to greatness. But through empathy, you have a much more interesting and formidable origin story.