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What is Empathy, Really?

People talk about empathy as critical to deepening relationships, building communities, organizations, and diversifying friendships. People say it’s the critical component to living in an anti-racist society, to designing great products, services, and infrastructure, to deepen a sense of belonging in our organizations. 

Molly Worthen, in her recent New York Times editorial, described the various uses of empathy in socio-political contexts in a way to challenge how the term is used, and even exploited. Typically, empathy is described as an ability to step into another person’s shoes. Worthen writes: “Our capacity to see one another as fellow humans, to connect across differences, is the foundation of a liberal pluralist society. Yet skeptics say that what seems like empathy often may be another form of presumption, condescension or domination.”

When I studied anthropology as an undergraduate, there seemed to be a collective identity crisis amongst scholars: how can we, privileged, often White, often men, write of others in a way that illustrates aspects of human social behavior? Introductions to texts became explorations on identity, self and other, where archaic terms like “foreign” and “native” were thrust out as imperialistic and yet the thrusting was primarily being done by those with power. We still owned the narrative, even if we didn’t want it. 

The Black Lives Matter movement achieved something different. Black voices rose to more “hearable” levels perhaps because the white voices who also advocate for the injustices experienced got out of the way.  

One can never fully step into another’s shoes. The best we can do is attempt to understand, and it is in the process of understanding where we can see, feel, hear, and smell a life lived. Stepping aside, offering different platforms for amplification rather than sharing the stage (and still authoring the story) means Black voices were heard differently: perhaps a deeper sense of empathy drove a different reaction.

Empathy is the Process of Understanding

For me, empathy is not an end state. It is a continuous unfolding process of listening. Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes in How to Love, “Understanding is love’s other name.” To understand means to be able to really hear – and to hear with humility –  another person’s journey in moving through bits of life’s discomforts. 

But as with everything, being able to be open to the process of understanding relies on our ability to embrace our own sense of self and therefore expand our compassion for others. “When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness,” he says. 

These truisms exist across cultures, politics, and social movements. Gloria Steinem’s A Revolution From Within captures Thich Nhat Hanh’s sentiment for how self-love and dignity is central to a thriving relationship, democracy, and world. She writes about how she spoke to both men and women about their feelings of inner incompleteness, a sense of self doubt, and in some cases, even self-hatred. How this manifested across genders and socio-economic experiences differed, but a common result was an inability to understand where the other was coming from or experiencing. “The desire to overpower another,” says Steinem, “might be as organic as a clam shell.”

 

“Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces.” Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

 

Self Love is Necessary for Building Inclusive, Diverse, Equitable Communities 

The divide in our country has never been greater. There has also never been more noise – social media, news channels, podcasts, protests: people screaming their truth without hearing each other. We’re passionate about wanting to be heard, less so about wanting to listen.

Famous anarchist Emma Goldman says, “Before we can forgive one another, we have to understand one another.” Being truly empathetic with another person’s experience requires the listener to enter a vulnerable position of not knowing. It’s an imperfect process and inconsistent. Brené Brown says: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome…to be human is to be vulnerable.” Even more importantly, she says, “Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous.”  

Connecting with ourselves is the foundational ingredient to being able to connect and empathize with others. If we can open our own aperture, see our unique self worth and sense of dignity, and build a practice for seeing and adjusting how we can better love ourselves, then we might improve our listening of others. We might be able to love deeper and build better with those humans around us.  

As Ursula Le Guin writes: “You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.”

 

 

 

 

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