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How Empathy Helps

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The Paris Attacks, the Holidays and Feeling Disenfranchised

November 12, 2015

 

The recent Paris attacks have made me think about what it means to feel disenfranchised. And why does that feeling lead some people to do unthinkably terrible things? This is a hard thing for me to write about because I don’t want anyone to think I am condoning violent behavior. I don’t, not when it comes to riots in our own country, and certainly not when it comes to mad men, psychopaths or acts of terrorism.

Still, I think it’s something we need to understand, otherwise we are likely to become more and more divided, which will only make the world a scarier place to be. What will understanding buy us, you wonder? Well, my biggest hope is that when we understand people who feel disenfranchised, they will feel less so, and will then be less drawn to a radicalized lifestyle.

At the far end of the disenfranchised spectrum, life becomes cheap and expendable. As we listen to and value each other’s stories, hopefully we each begin to feel that not only does our own life matter, but that other people believe our lives matter too. I agree with the hashtag BlackLivesMatter, for example, not because I don’t think All Lives Matter, but because I am listening, have listened to how much African Americans have felt and been treated as if their lives don’t matter, not even as much as mine, but as though their lives don’t matter, period.

Of course in order to truly empathize, I, we, need to dig deep into our own experiences: To think about times we have not felt like we’ve mattered, or at least, not felt like we mattered enough. I’m not saying empathy requires us to have the exact same experience as someone else. That is impossible of course. However, I think all of us have had some experience of feeling uncared about and separate from the privilege and happiness of others. Even people in the 1 percent have experienced traumatic loss and/or health problems. I think about Steve Job’s family having lost their father/husband way too young to pancreatic cancer, and all the money in the world that couldn’t save him. It is, after all, the same way my own father died.

In a myriad of ways many of us end up feeling disenfranchised during the holidays also, whether it is for religions reasons, because we are feeling estranged from our families, have recently lost a dear family member, or because of some other stressor, financial or otherwise.

In a sense the holidays are a good time to try and empathize with those who may feel disenfranchised year round. Many of the world’s religions have mid winter celebrations about the idea of light overcoming darkness. At this time of year, those of us struggling with loss, conflict, poverty, etc, can get a little stuck in the darkness and feel even more disconnected from those of us who are able to get caught up in the light, joy and hope of the season.

Sometimes I get truly tired of pushing myself to find empathy for others, when it doesn’t feel like they are pushing themselves to be empathic towards me. I think it’s worth fighting for though, because outside  of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s ideas about Truth and Reconciliation, I think empathy will be what saves us from destroying each other.

I’m not talking about allowing people to commit atrocities and then saying ‘All we have to do is empathize with them’. I recognize violent behavior must be stopped and that there must be consequences that keep, or at least attempt to keep, the rest of us safe from other’s hatred and violence. I feel like adding, ‘because I’m not stupid!’. And that, as Desmond Tutu says, our own hatred is part of being human too. Many times it will feel too difficult to empathize with someone who has become an enemy or who wants to or has hurt us in unforgivable ways. In these cases it is perfectly okay to let them go, be self-protective and practice empathy with someone closer to home instead. Any time we practice empathy it will help us avoid becoming as hateful as those who hate us.

I also think empathy is worth fighting for as an antidote to depression. It is the proverbial ‘getting out of our own heads’ activity. Depression disconnects us and empathy connects us.

The sentence stem to express empathy is, “Given what you have experienced, I imagine you must feel…. “. At a talk I gave recently I gave the audience the instruction to empathize with something that bothered them about themselves. As hard as it is to empathize with someone else, it can be even harder to empathize with ourselves. One person was brave enough to share how she completed that sentence stem. She said, “I feel stupid and inadequate”.

First, I suggested that ‘stupid and inadequate’ are not feeling words. Examples of feeling words are ‘sad’, ‘scared’, ‘disappointed’, even ‘guilty’ and ‘ashamed’. It’s all too easy to confuse judgement with empathy. So we all empathized not only with her feelings of embarrassment and shame, but also with her tendency and our own to be intensely self-critical.

Then, we helped her develop a more loving perspective and helped her accept the mistake that was bothering her. We all joked about how quickly we wanted to jump in and try and “fix her’ instead of really putting ourselves in her shoes. And we all felt a sense, if only for a moment, that it was really okay to be imperfect. It was just one tiny moment in time, but it felt hopeful, loving and peaceful. May you find and share at least a few moments of that this holiday season with loved ones, but also, perhaps with someone you have never met before as well.

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