On Empathy — The Core Virtue That Could Change the World
Want to Become a Better Human Being? Start Here
If you want to become a better human being, then you are going to have to see the world beyond yourself.
If you want to see the world beyond yourself, then you are going to have see the world from other “selfs”.
This is called empathy — it is seeing, feeling, and understanding the world as if you are the other.
And it is the most important practice you can do to make the world a better place.
Ego-Centric to World-Centric
Our default mode is egocentrism — which is important to own; that you are a self that exists on its own — but the primary cause of unhealth in our lives, our relationships, and the world is the failure to move beyond ego-centrism. Consider the unjust, frustrating, ignorant, or, even, evil effects you see in the world. There is a good chance that it’s root is someone or some group who has failed to move beyond themselves.
So yes, begin with the good of the self, but at some point, you must also be intentional about the good of the other — seeing them, not as an object or stranger or an antagonist that you must work around in order to achieve something for yourself, but as a fellow human being with whom you move through the world with, interdependently.
You move from ego-centric — seeing the world only through your eyes,
To world-centric — seeing the world through the world’s eyes.
Our goal ought to be to see that your health only exists in collaboration with the health of the world around you. That ‘the other’ exists in the same way you exist.
[for more on this: “How You View the World + Why Your Perspective Matters”]
Doing this leads to Empathy.
How Empathy Works
You want to create a good world? You want to be your best? The foundational ingredient, then, is empathy. It is the bridge that exposes and embodies the connection you have with the world around you by seeing the world around you with the same intimacy and assumptions that you see with yourself.
Empathy is what many religious & philosophical traditions laud as the central virtue of being a flourishing human being. Empathy is the foundation that makes a healthy, thriving world possible.
If you, then, are going to intentionally practice one thing to live better — then this is where you ought to start.
Now…the question we need to address is, of course, “How do we do it?”
The answer? Through two practices you can implement into every moment.
First, you start with attribution.
Attribution is seeing someone or witnessing something happen and attributing what is going on internally to manifest the behavior, thought, or effect of their existence.
Now, this is never completely accurate as you aren’t even able to attribute your own behaviors or thoughts perfectly because of how complex your existence is let alone someone whose identity you don’t inhabit. But the goal of attribution isn’t to know perfectly what is going on in another person’s internal state, the goal is simply what the attempt does — it forces you to see the world outside of yourself.
Attribution leads to perspective taking — you can only attribute someone else’s behaviors, thoughts, or existence if you have tried to take on their perspective and see the world through their lens. Attribution is what people are referring to when they use the common line of walking in someone else’s shoes.
You simply attempt to see the world from their vantage point — attributing to their consequential behavior the reason, motivation, or cause of what brought their thought, words, or behavior into being.
This is the first part of empathy.
Let’s say your friend is supposed to be over at 6:00 PM and it is now 6:30 PM. They aren’t answering their phone and they were supposed to bring jalapeños so you could finish making salsa and they aren’t there yet. You are left in a fog as to why they aren’t on time and have a hint of distressed anxiety as the unfinished salsa awaits its spicy ingredient of completion.
In this scenario, an egocentric reaction leads you to creating a negative projection because they have caused a issue for your life. You begin by getting annoyed which leads to seeing them as wrong and viewing them as a problem to your well being and by the end of the sequence of emotions, you are ready to put them on trial as you are a victim to this immense wrong they have brought into your life and, especially, to the salsa. When they do show up, your first words might even be,
“Where the hell have you been?!”
But switch your perspective in processing these events and something happens. If in those moments of unexpected distress you begin attributing their behavior to their point of view instead of just yours, the empathy leads to a different, more collaborative response.
It might look something like this — you attribute based on what you know so you may start with, “Have I ever been late? What happened with me in the past when I was thrown off schedule?” Once you’ve done this, you have entered their shoes (the common cliche in empathy discourse does have some validity, I suppose) and you can begin considering alternatives to their actions that go beyond them intentionally wronging you and ruining your salsa. Their may have been traffic or their phone battery died or they got lost or maybe, as your mind enters worst case scenarios, something tragic has happened and that possibility makes your ego-centric self-victimization a little less appropriate.
Attribution opens up the range of possibilities that keep you from victimizing yourself and, instead, considering that something larger may be unfolding here.
As the progression of events unfolds, everything is already that much healthier for the common good and now you are able to act more as their comrade, thinking of what might be going on from their situation and perspective, as opposed to their executioner. Empathy takes you outside of yourself and forces you to enter the situation with the other person as opposed to being against them or interacting with them from a calloused, distant approach.
Note: Which is why empathy, not sympathy is so important in situations of suffering. Staying in an ego-centric, distant posture will isolate the sufferer and propel them even further into their pain. Empathy requires you to join the suffering — to be in it with them — and that is what might actually lead to health and life and tangible change in their darkness (which is what the word ‘compassion’ literally means) — for more on this, check out “How to Change the World in Two Difficult Steps”.
Which brings up an important detail with attribution — the more you search outside of yourself, the more you learn about how the world works, and the more aware & mature you become within the various situations and complexities of life — the easier attribution will be. Ignorance is the core ingredient to egocentrism. Ignorance is only relieved by learning — by being able to see more of the world than you did before.
So you begin with Attribution.
This is a good start.
But there is one more piece to practicing the core virtue of human existence called empathy.
Secondly, practice Accommodation.
Attribution needs to be followed up with Accommodation.
Once you have seen and felt and understood the world as if you are them, once you have taken on the perspective of the other, you now have a certain wisdom and view and understanding that invites you to act accordingly.
So you no longer feel poised to immediately confront your friend in outrage due to your lack of jalapeños, so how do you treat them?
Well, being in that person’s existence (or, shoes, if you will) you can now accommodate your presence to theirs.
It might begin with, “How would I want to be treated in this situation?” Or it might go even further to, “How can I respond that will be best for everyone?”
Empathy begins with perspective taking and that attribution invites you to act with the healthiest, most contextual response.
Maybe they did happen to be late because of a stupid, selfish, or unnecessary reason, but just by going through this process you have now seen them as the human being they are, you have inhabited their world past yourself as if you are in their situation, and the anger you had because they got in the way of what you wanted just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore. You are able to care for them in their misfortune or mistake as opposed to critically ostracizing them.
But more realistically, whatever implicated their lateness is now able to be dealt with in a constructive way. Their car broke down? You are now in a position to help them take the next right step. They got stuck in traffic? You can affirm their misfortune as a tough break.
Because you have joined their side, you are comrades in the story instead of antagonists.
A Better World?
It might just come through empathy where your interests become the interest of everyone. Where we navigate the world through a shared, collaborative perspective as opposed to our own, separate, defensive ones.
What if you traversed the world with this kind of awareness and this kind of presence?
The posture of empathy could, quite possibly, change everything.
I’m working on discovering how to “Become More Human”
If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I’m finding to help craft how you live, too. You can find more here: