The first time that I fully understood what empathy was and what it meant to be empathetic was during my sophomore year of college when I took a job with a local senior care facility. During employee training, we discussed how the seniors in the facility often longed for empathy, but more often received sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, whereas sympathy is the feeling of sorrow for someone else’s circumstances. Given this information, I was forced to step back and question what could I do to better understand the mind-sets of many of the residents in the facility and how I could help improve their quality of life.
Most of the residents living in the facility have been through significantly more hardships in their lifetimes than I can identify with. Some of them had lived through multiple wars, others had lost children, and yet others just struggled with the loneliness and depression that plagues senior care facilities. Of course I sympathized with every resident and each of their stories, but empathizing with them was much more difficult of a task.
I am very blessed in this life and I am very fortunate not to have encountered too many struggles in my 21 years on this planet. I was raised in an amazing little town with great friends and a wonderful support system. Because of this, I couldn’t relate to many of the residents’ feelings; however I could imagine them. I could imagine the frustration I would feel if my body didn’t work but my mind was as sharp as ever; or how I would feel if my family wasn’t just a phone call away. This ability to imagine some of these circumstances allowed me to empathize with the residents and in turn form some amazing friendships.
I got an even more powerful lesson in empathy the next semester when I did a service-learning trip to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta, Georgia. The IRC provides services to refugees entering the United States to help promote self-reliance and successful integration. During the week, I met some of the most resilient, beautiful, and hard-working people, however one person in specific left a powerful impact on me.
Afia was a mother who had successfully sought refuge after leaving her home country of Rwanda. Afia didn’t speak very much English but she was beyond dedicated to learn, and her drive to be successful in America was apparent. One day at the IRC the teacher was teaching vocabulary surrounding the family: baby, child, teenager, ect. The group of refugees then had to spend time talking about each of their families. Afia said she had 14 children. This alone was shocking to me, as it was so different than the American concept of children and families. As Afia continued we would soon learn that 8 of the 14 children were dead, 4 were kidnapped, and 2 followed her to America.
Rwanda is a country plagued by war. Although Afia’s English was not good enough to elaborate, based on the stories of other refugees in similar situations it is easy to guess that many of her children were forced to be soldiers or taken for other reasons. Following this story it was hard to empathize with Afia and rather I immediately jumped to sympathy. Throughout the week, I had to remind myself that Afia didn’t want me to pity her or feel sorry for her; rather she wanted me to teach her English, to speak with her about life in America, and to give her hope for the future.
As Afia and I grew closer towards the end of the week, she taught me another important concept, the concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others.’ It also means ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’ Ubuntuism includes essential human virtues of compassion and humanity. As we left to return home, Afia told me she was better for having known me and she thanked me for the compassion and humanity that I had showed towards her during my short time at the IRC. While Afia said that she is better for having known me, the truth is that I am better for having known her.
Finally, my biggest lesson in empathy came my junior year when I was afforded the opportunity to study abroad. In the spring semester I set out on a journey that would take me to Alicante, Spain. Spain brought with it something magical. Spain took me back in time; suddenly I felt like I was five years old again, struggling to perfect a language and copy the customs that I witnessed around me. Everyday I was learning something new and everyday I grew a little bit. The difference was that I was constantly questioning everything, and many days it was obvious that I was not Spanish.
What became significant about this experience is that this time I was on the receiving end of the empathy. When I walked into a restaurant and spent 10 minutes trying to translate the menu the waitress could choose whether to get frustrated with me or to smile and help explain words that made absolutely no sense to me. Although I ran into people who would get frustrated, or wouldn’t understand how hard I was trying to fit in. I also ran into people who were extremely empathetic, who helped nurture and cultivate my perceptions of Spain and the Spanish language. The beautiful thing about being on the receiving end of empathy is that at the end of the day you realize how many kind, generous, and empathetic people that there truly are in the world.
To conclude, I know for sure that these experiences have forever changed me. I will be a better worker, a more understanding friend, and an involved global citizen. These experiences have and will continue to allow me to contribute to the world in a positive way and it all started with an increased awareness of what it means to be empathetic and an active decision to constantly try to empathize with others.
Aley Schweigert- Global Empathizer