Empathy is the ability to feel, understand, relate to,… the emotions/experiences of another person. Without necessarily thinking about putting yourself in another person’s shoes, you “just know” how s/he feels going through a particular experience. The inability to be empathic may result in misunderstanding, failure to relate at a deeper level with others and failure to build stronger relationships.
Not a long time ago, I was going through financial hardship. I can say it was one of the worst times of my life. Well, there have been worse, but this is up there. While I was meditating about what I felt at that time, I recalled the times when some of my friends were going through financial hardship and I did not really understand what it was like to be in such a bind. I did not have money to share or help them with their situation, but my comments or lack of them, at times, showed that I didn’t really care, and I didn’t really understand their situation. Actually, I cannot remember if I thought about their situation much. At one time, I believe I “blamed” them for not doing enough to make sure that they were not “always broke”. Looking back, I can see that they worked as hard as they could, but bills took over. I cannot think of one thing they did wrong. I know it was a long time ago, but I still remember how bad the economy was. There were also other factors that made it harder for them to find gainful employment, none of which were my friends’ own making.
I know that some of them will read this blog. I am not sure if they will read this particular post, but I would like to apologize to them. I am sorry for my lack of understanding and lack of empathy.
Reflecting on this has made me recall other situations in which I did not fully understand what the other person meant or felt. I think that sometimes you develop empathy through experience. When you go through an experience that somebody else went through or is going through, it is a lot easier to understand, to relate, or to put yourself in their shoes without really thinking about it. For example, people say that you cannot really know how painful it is to lose a loved one, until you lose one. Or how painful a heartbreak is until you experience one. Or to really need something and not have it. Or to work so hard at something and not get the results that you really wanted.
I know that I am making this sound like empathy can only be applied to bad situations. No, you can relate to somebody’s happiness. Seeing a newly-wed, and recall how happy you were when you got married. Or for a new convert, how happy you were on the day you were born-again or converted. Or how happy you are when you talk to your family.
You cannot wait to experience all those bad or good things in order to develop empathy. You will be very old before you can be a full human being! Thank God that we are endowed with the ability to imagine, and the ability to choose! We can choose to imagine how we would feel if something like that happened to us. We can choose to truly listen to the words that are coming out, the emotion that is conveyed in the posture, cry, laughter, smile, excitement, etc. We can choose to ask questions that will make us understand what the other person is thinking or feeling. The additional knowledge might help. This way, we will not wait for experience to teach us how to be empathic.