We hear the word Empathy a lot, more so these days. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it entails?
What is Empathy?
Let’s start with what it isn’t.
Empathy is not investing yourself in every situation and using your perspective as the ultimate judge. It’s not yelling #BlueLivesMatter when a police officer is accused of brutality. It’s not yelling #NotAllMen when women post #MeToo. It’s not saying #NotAllWhites when in a discussion of racism.
It’s not saying I don’t see color.
In fact, all of that is the antithesis to empathy. If you don’t see color it means you don’t acknowledge the struggles, it means you invalidate the claim.
You have to look at the situation from another’s perspective. That means not yours.
By asking what a rape victim was wearing might seem to you to be trying to figure out what would instigate such depravity, such evil, because thankfully it’s not in your repertoire of behavior, but it’s accusatory of the victim and enables others who have that depravity in their repertoire. It denies that such evil exists. And slowly wears away at the realization that people are harmed.
A statement of white or male privilege isn’t an attack on you, and you hearing it as one suggests you have a slightly unhealthy and very unhelpful ego. The response is never #NotAllWhitePeople or #NotAllMen. In saying that you are essentially calling the other person a liar, causing that person to see your ignorance and arrogance. You have widened a divide, proved the point, unintentionally, unconsciously.
Being Empathetic Means Accepting It’s Not All About YOU!
Listen. Hear. Try to understand. In listening we try to understand by searching our own experiences, our own perspectives. We strive to find something, some experience we can relate it to. When we don’t find a corroborating one, don’t dismiss it. Understand that it’s likely due to privilege of one type or another. Then listen, learn, hear the perspective of another. Then go back and search your experiences to compare, to feel the fear, pain, delight, from their perspective.
Don’t Let the Learning Drain Out
The same goes for criminals. We all watch movies and TV shows about crime. Law and Order, NCIS, Criminal Minds, The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, Sopranos, Suits, etc. Yet once the screen goes dark, so does the learning, understanding.
People have different motivations than we do. Money, power, fame … but when threatened, at risk, what are their motivations? How many times do hear the protection of family, not self, becomes a motivation in plea deals? Yet we can’t see that the threat of that danger would override a plea deal in real life?
It’s not different in why we cannot comprehend why someone would WANT a deal of life imprisonment vs. the death penalty.
What is the motivation?
Look at the situation from THEIR perspective, in their shoes. What motivates them? Telling the truth and being honorable, taking a deal may not be the better option if the threat of your family being tortured and killed by criminal syndicates who are exposed as part of the plea.
Judging a situation using only our perspective means we cannot comprehend the reality we are witnessing.
Listening, Learning, Leads to Empathy
Keep asking why. Your vault of understanding is deeper than your personal experiences. It’s called learning. Applying that learning is called Empathy.
A week before the school shooting in Florida my son’s school went in to lock down. I was absorbed, consumed with the fear of the possibility that he might not come home. He’s a senior in high school and despite so many stories of school and societal violence, it never felt personal until the very moment it was.
When he came home safely, after I hugged him and allowed the fear to dissipate, I realized how lucky, privileged we were. It was the first time I had to worry about that.
Minority moms have to face that every single day as they send their sons outside. Every day they live with the fear that their sons won’t come home. I have no basis to comprehend how that constant fear shapes all their lives. Just thinking about it is crushing in it’s enormity.
We have to see color, gender, etc. Otherwise we are ignoring it, dismissing the reality, deepening the divide.