With Empathy Day coming up on the 12th June, I’m having thoughts about what exactly empathy is.
There is a kind of animal empathy which is the innate and learned understanding of facial expressions and body language. It’s an almost universal language.
Innate animal empathy allows us to look at that smiley face above and understand the emotion portrayed. You can probably look at this group of Apple Emoji and give a pretty good approximation of the emotion each one portrays.
No matter where you were in the world, if you couldn’t speak the language, You would know if someone was happy or sad, tired or despondent, tense or relaxed. This kind of empathy oils the daily process of rubber ing along with other human beings.
Then there is a deeper kind of empathy – more psychological – definitely a learned thing.
It’s not sympathy – Sympathy is a feeling and showing of concern and. Sympathy is born of empathy.
Empathy is not compassion either – Compassion is more practical. It is sympathy with action, to help from a more distant position.
Empathy is the the parent of both those emotions. Without empathy there would be no reason to get involved in anything.
Empathy is placing yourself inside the shoes of another and looking at the world through their eyes, dropping your beliefs and prejudices for a moment, and really trying to understand how someone else views the world you share.
At that point, you may alter your views and re-examine your beliefs. At that point you may choose to have sympathy or compassion. You don’t have to though.
Maybe understanding is a closer description?
Seeing the world through another’s eyes does not mean you have to be best friends or that you have to help or fundraise for them.
You may detest the person whose eyes you look through – Hitler… Stalin… Shipman, maybe? But by looking through their eyes, you may better understand how the world works and how you may defend yourself, your beliefs and your freedoms.
How best to see the world through other’s eyes? How to understand Hitler or Mother Theresa, the condemned man, the six year old child, the aged-aunt, the fluffy celebrity or a politician in free-fall?
Read a book.
Reading a book is like putting on a second skin – living in a different but similar world – wearing someone else’s shoes – looking out through someone else’s eyes.
Unlike another medium, you are at the centre of the story. You are looking out through the eyes of the protagonist. You are creating the scenery as you go along. You are creating an inner understanding of another person’s mind that will never go away.
Read a book – more than anything else, they are manuals to a deeper understanding of life.