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Everyday Empathy

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I can recall vividly the day I first read those words. The writer was Harper Lee and the book was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I was lying on my sofa at home reading a book that I would not fully understand till I had read it over, years later. But even through my fogginess, one sentence stood out for me.

“You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Fact: Empathy is integral to our lives. And yet, if we’re honest, I think we’re living in a world that makes it so easy to lose sight of another person’s pain. The truth is that people haven’t lost the ability to empathize, but they may have lost sight of the fact that tapping into our emotional core needs to be an everyday occurrence and not something we do selectively.

What does this deficiency do to a person? What has changed in our empathetic wiring? Have we become so distracted that our unseeing eyes aren’t able to really connect with another person?

It dismays me somewhat to see that people’s collective stirrings has the power to move masses on social media resulting in phenomenal movements that can bring about revolutionary change. And yet those very same people can remain aloof and emotionally unavailable in their own human relationships. Such a paradox!

As my fingers circle the rim of my coffee cup this evening I am more convinced that one of the reasons people struggle with empathy is not just because we don’t understand others. I think a huge issue in our present world is that many people still don’t understand themselves. How can one who is unbalanced or conflicted ever be able to really empathize or understand another? How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to love yourself?

I wonder. Can empathy be taught? Can empathy be developed?

Compassion is a cornerstone of our emotional quotient, a vital first step towards Empathy. As a teacher I am conscious of my own role in role-modeling empathy and while I am aware that having empathic parents and teachers does not guarantee that children will become empathic, it is certainly an important factor.

I’ve been sitting here marinating in my thoughts. Perhaps unnecessarily. Perhaps not. I am not saying that I believe that people are lacking in empathy today as opposed to in the past. That premise would be wrong. True, people are the same as they ever were but what has changed drastically I believe is our ability to connect and gain deep insight into what other people think, feel and do and therein lies the problem.

In a world that spends billions on professional therapy, I think what we are most in need of is deep introspection. While it is surely not possible to feel connected to 7 billion strangers our only hope for the future is if we can at least exist organically and really feel instinctively for the ones we know and love.  Everyday empathy, that’s what we need. After all – Ubuntu, it is our humanness that connects us all.

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