I Feel You

empathy

You know that meme that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar?”

I’m that guy.

I’m not just talking about spelling or punctuation or usage. (Although I grit my teeth whenever I see someone misuse “Too, To and Two.” How in God’s green earth can someone not know the difference between those words and still be allowed to operate a motor vehicle?)

Rather, I am talking about choosing the right words and, most of all, accepting responsibility for what is said.

The power and weight and consequence of words is immense, especially in today’s world of social media when so many say so much that, ultimately means so little.

Words seem to have lost their inherent value, spewed aimlessly, reduced to so much acidic vomit, their truth twisted cynically into sour, burned pretzels of misinformation and deception.

These thoughts came to mind at a conference I recently attended about understanding poverty.

In that context I realized that we often confuse and therefore misuse “Sympathy” and “Empathy.”

First, to be clear, though their meanings overlap, they are not directly synonymous.

Empathy means acknowledging the validity of another’s experience. Without judgement. Without criticism.

Sympathy, on the other hand is the act of feeling badly for someone because of some unfortunate life circumstance. It sometimes smacks of (or at least can open the door to) judgement, criticism and pity.

For example, I feel badly that one of my brothers is suffering the residual effects of a vicious divorce. My heart hurts for him (though I have to say there’s a lot of karma behind what he’s going through.)

That may seem a subtle line in the linguistic sand. It’s not – neither in theory nor application.

It is literally the difference between saying “I feel for you,” and “I feel you.”

Sadly, like so many other aspects of our capitalistic, “I-Me-Mine” American society in which we think first (and sometimes only) of how something will impact us personally, we tend to favor sympathy over empathy.

Sympathy (without empathy) requires less of us — physically, emotionally or even financially.

Sympathy (without empathy) lets us stand off to the side and do nothing more than cluck our tongues, pitying someone for their hard knocks.

It allows us to feel superior.

However, Empathy demands more emotional maturity, philosophical flexibility and intellectual impartiality.

It is harder, and perhaps more dangerous to say, “I may not agree with your lifestyle/position/choice/perspective. I cannot understand it because it’s not my reality. But it is authentic for you. So, I respect it.”

Empathy forces us to recognize, acknowledge and understand that my life is not everyone’s life. And that others – just like me – didn’t and don’t always get to choose the circumstances of their life.

Most especially, empathy insists that we say (and this is the hardest part): “I want to help however I can, human being to human being.”  No judgement, no criticism.

So, for example, I am not poor (or African American, or female, or homosexual, or grieving the loss of a family member, etc.) Therefore, I cannot possibly understand what it means, or has meant, or will mean to be any of those things.

But I am willing and able – indeed, I am charged as a fellow life traveler – to trust that someone else’s experience, circumstances, challenges and obstacles are very much real.

They define us.

They define how the world sees and interacts with us – and potentially how we see and interact with the world around us in response.

I may not get “It” – whatever “It” is for someone else. But I don’t have to, in order to do the right thing.

A very good friend of mine notes that I write a lot about social justice issues.

She’s right.

Yet this isn’t about social justice per se. In a perverse way, making this concern that “big” makes it too big. Doing that somehow elevates empathy to a gilded place, making it harder to get at and therefore easier to ignore.

Rather, this is about something much simpler: basic human decency (speaking of important and misunderstood words…)

When it comes to understanding others different than us – no matter the difference — basic human decency dictates we should step down from our pedestal and help someone else step up.

Try to simply understand.

Open our minds and hearts.

Stretch out a helping hand as far as possible.

And remember that how we are different isn’t nearly as important as how we are the same.

 

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