Isabel Wilkerson’s Latest Book Teaches Us How To Cultivate “Radical Empathy”

For anything happening in my community, I need to realize that “I am the problem, I am the solution, I am the resource”

Robert Saul
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

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The subject of empathy can be all-consuming.

Since the early 1990s, I’ve trying to encompass the tenets of empathy in my life and my personal and social interactions. I’d like to think that I succeed more often than I fail but an honest assessment reveals that I often struggle and need to do better. It is helpful to look at the classic definition of empathy and then examine some of the milestones along my journey to seek an even stronger commitment to understand and help others.

I’d like to share some of my journey:

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This seems so simple on the surface, but empathy is an active process, not a passive one.

An early milestone in my journey was to internalize the words from health care specialist, Leland Kaiser. For anything happening in my community, I need to realize that “I am the problem, I am the solution, I am the resource.” By accepting personal responsibility in issues that face my fellow citizens, I am acknowledging that I need to be part of the solution and engage my resources.

Then, I made a checklist of some of the activities that can be action steps for me as I practiced empathy:

Empathy reminds us that we are all in this together.

Empathy reminds us that the actions of others cannot necessarily be judged.

Empathy reminds us that we should make tangible strides to improve the life of our community and the lives of others.

Empathy reminds us that we are accountable to something larger than ourselves and, ultimately, we are here to serve others.

Back in 2014, when reading an issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, I read a provocative explanation of the concept of mercy. “Mercy is a willingness to enter into the chaos of others…[and is a] developed human capacity that involves hard, uncertain, and hidden work.”

I subsequently went on to write about this; that the chaos of others can be quite discomforting, yet it is the measure of our ability to exhibit mercy and provide the nurturing care that is necessary to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the life of our community. To borrow a phrase from the aforementioned article, “If the arc of [human compassion] is to ultimately bend toward healing, mercy will be its fulcrum.” This reading provided powerful instruction moving forward.

The most recent milestone for me is the reading of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. As Americans, we quickly condemn the long-standing caste system of India and the fortunately short-lived caste system of Nazi Germany. Yet we fail to recognize our own caste system that has survived for centuries and will require significant efforts to dismantle.

The end of slavery, the end of the Civil War, and even the civil rights legislation of the 1960s have still not broken down the aspects of a caste system that can poison our society if we are truly seeking to care for each other.

I was similarly struck by Wilkerson’s discussion of empathy and radical empathy: “Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is looking across at someone and feeling sorrow, often in times of loss. Empathy is not pity. Pity is looking down from above and feeling a distant sadness for another in their misfortune. Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world that we live in. Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.”

I’m making headway on this journey. I know that “mere” empathy is insufficient and that I have to be more than “just” tolerant of the plight of others. The active process of empathy — willing to enter in the misfortunte of others (“em”) and delve into their suffering (“pathos”) — can be emotionally draining and chaotic.

I have to use my own strengths and weaknesses to reach out, gently peek behind the curtain, be humble, and actively pursue a course of active engagement. Role-playing is not enough. I know that I have it within me to do this, but I will need strength, endurance, and be willing to recognize my own humanity as I make strides forward and probably some steps backward.

I am ready to stay engaged.

Bob Saul completed pediatric training at Duke University Medical Center and genetic training at the Greenwood Genetic Center. He is a Professor of Pediatrics (Emeritus) at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

He has two grown children, Bradley and Ben, and has been married to his wife, Jan, for over 33 years. His books include MY CHILDREN’S CHILDREN: RAISING YOUNG CITIZENS IN THE AGE OF COLUMBINE, ALL ABOUT CHILDREN, and THINKING DEVELOPMENTALLY: NURTURING WELLNESS IN CHILDHOOD TO PROMOTE LIFELONG HEALTH (the latter co-authored with Dr. Andy Garner and published by the American Academy of Pediatrics). His latest book, CONSCIOUS PARENTING: USING THE PARENTAL AWARENESS THRESHOLD, was published in March 2020.

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