Empathy by definition is to walk in another’s shoes so to experience how they live, feel, and be. To practice this skill with no reference point of experience to draw from can be difficult to navigate. In this world, no two people have the same life experience and as such it can feel like a daunting task to see ourselves in the shoes of someone who, on the surface, seems so different.
There is surplus at my local grocery store, and in my cupboard, but I know little tummies are going hungry tonight. Can I empathize with their situation? Someone received a clean bill of health today while another learned the treatment is not working. Can these two empathize with one another?
Often when we hear stories like this on the news, social media, or from friends we recognize that we feel bad but don’t know how to truly relate to the situation. Feelings of sympathy:(a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune) are easily felt when you watch the news of those displaced, less fortunate, desperate, or without hope. But it cannot stop with a feeling. The feelings must move to action aka: empathy.
Empathy by nature is internal imagination accompanied by external action. As we move to make this skill a reality we must first recognize truth: We can never completely align every experience we have in life with that of another person. Sadly, we use this as an excuse to push people we wish to avoid out of our line of sight and refuse to look at things from a contrasting perspective. “I cannot relate to your experience, so your experience doesn’t matter.” But difference in experiences between two individuals cannot/does not default the call of empathy. There is no possible way to have the exact same story even if you are siblings growing up with the same parents, in the same house, school, community. Personality, perspective, and individuality play a role in how we perceive and experience. So we must build our definition of empathy not on differences but what we have in common.
Poor, rich, old, young, brown, white, woman, man, little, big, the one thing we all can relate to is loss. Have you ever lost anyone that was dear to you? Whether through sickness, old age, a tragedy? Have you lost a job, love, your life savings, a leg, hope, health, time, your home, youth, a pet, mental health, even innocence? We all at some point have had to reckon with the undeniable force of losing someone or something we love, depend on, or just plain enjoyed. By identifying our common experience with loss, our imagination can then help us appreciate/relate to anyone who has lost. The same can be said for what we gain.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend. Over the course of the evening we talked about who we are today, because we hadn’t seen each other for 6 years. It was evident our paths are not very similar (age, family, health) but what helped me get in her shoes was how she shared her story. I couldn’t relate to how it is to lose my husband but I have been in a place of grief and pain with losing someone I love. Also, comparing my feelings of loss to hers was done internally. I couldn’t say, “I know how that feels”, but I could say, “That must be incredibly difficult, tell me more”.
True empathy seeks to understand those feelings and validate them with action. The way I describe it to my students is this: With empathy you are either the runner or the coach.
The runner is someone who looks at another’s path or story and can identify pretty closely with the experience. For example, anyone who has lived through a natural disaster, has been uprooted from home, and seen their community destroyed can relate to our friends in Florida and Texas right now. They have run that race and know first hand how difficult it is. The other is the coach. You haven’t run the same race with the other runners but you show up every day for practice, encouragement, support, and help all through the experience. A coach has a reason (personal connection, similar interest, etc) to see the runner succeed and though he won’t run the race himself he is committed to seeing the runner through the training.
Your knowledge of loss is the vehicle by which you can practice both types of empathy. Both the runner and the coach are invested, both are called to action by the situation, not of themselves, but of the runner they seek to assist. This is an external, actionable way to show empathy, and allows us to show empathy for anyone not just those we are similar to.
So let’s get off the bench. I’ve never lost my home or city to an unmerciful hurricane but I can relate to loss, and by knowing that numb despair I can aid, encourage, and get involved, all with the skill of empathy. The fact that we can relate to loss and gain can be a common thread that moves us to action on behalf of another.
Jennicca Mabe- Runner, Coach