“Before you start to judge me, step into my shoes and walk the life I am living and if you get as far as I am, just maybe you will see how strong I really am”- Unknown
We have all heard about the need for love, compassion and forgiveness. A word or term we don’t hear much about is empathy. Though empathy may seem interchangeable with compassion, I believe it is a more personal and direct experience, and not a blanket sentiment that covers a number of situations or subjects.
Rather than offer you the Merriam-Webster definition of empathy, let me tell you what I think it isn’t: getting upset at the young clerk at the coffee shop for getting your order wrong; reacting angrily to the person calling you at 8:59 pm trying to sell you something while you are watching a CSI marathon; honking your horn at the person in front of you who doesn’t react to the light changing green as quickly as you think they should.
Walking in someone else’s shoes is difficult because we don’t always know that person’s story, or what is happening in their life at that moment. The coffee shop worker quit high school because she is the only person in her household able to work. Her family has given up on making ends meet and is now just trying to survive. The 8:59 pm caller is trying to keep his family together after being laid-off two years earlier. His kids are already in bed and he misses reading to them and tucking them in at night. The light has turned green but she just found out her husband has cancer. She is scared and what was once a bright future headed into retirement together is now an unlit path into the unknown.
We generate empathy with others by remembering the struggles in our own lives, the stories we have personally dealt with or, as Mohsin Hamid describes, “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself”. It is easy to get wrapped up in our own little world and the worlds of the people we are closest too, but we don’t live on an island, we share this big blue ball with seven billion other souls who are living seven billion stories and experiencing seven billion good times and bad.
The next time a waiter screws up your order, a store clerk is rude to you, or your co-worker passes you without saying good morning, take a deep breath, look into their eyes and see if you can picture the story they are living. Perhaps it is a story you have already lived through.
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”- Maya Angelou