Empathy - the Zeitgeist of Today
The word ‘empathy’ has become some kind of cultural zeitgeist - which means the spirit or mood of today’s generation, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This common buzzword is often mentioned and discussed in schools, workplaces, even corporate boardrooms and more so now in hospitals and government offices. But what is empathy really and why does it matter?
Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. Some people consider it as an important pathway to kindness, and kindness is one of the pillars of humanity. How can you be kind to somebody if you do not feel for that person, or you do not experience what that person is going through? Schools across the world are teaching empathy to students and a myriad of research has been carried out to delve deeper into its meaning.
Empathy is climbing in someone's skin and walking around in it
The base of empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s skin and walk around in it. Only then can you feel how that person feels and imagine how that person lives or has lived. As Atticus Finch said to his daughter, Scout, in the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” This is so true in this modern life where many individuals share their (sad or happy) stories on social media platforms and in return receive criticisms, sarcastic remarks, sniggering, denigrations and derogative comments, instead of empathy and sympathies.
For many decades, the business world too has been promoting empathy by encouraging companies to be more proactive in ensuring fair trade and stopping labour rights violations and sweatshops in Third World countries where their manufacturing operations are taking place. In recent months, governments all around the world are seeking empathy from citizens, in light of the still-ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, urging them to be more supportive towards measures to help curb the spread or the second wave of the disease.
In this kind of situation, feeling sympathetic is not enough; we need to have empathy. While sympathy means the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else, empathy goes deeper. It asks you to understand, share the feelings of another and offer help, even if in the form of words. Sympathising is feeling sorry for the person who is walking in the rain without an umbrella. Empathising is understanding the feeling of that poor person and offering to share an umbrella with him/her.
We should feel empathetic to families who have suffered pain and loss of their closed ones. We should try to walk in the shoes of healthcare workers who are in the frontline, battling the onset of the disease. We should have considerations for businesses which have closed down. We should understand and even help out friends who have been displaced from their jobs or students whose parents may have lost their jobs and are no longer able to afford to continue their studies. Philosopher Roman Krznaric states in his book that empathy is an ideal (a standard of perfection, beauty, or excellence) and it has the power to both transform our lives and lead to significant social change. Scientifically, he said, humans are naturally wired for empathy. But social and political factors put up barriers preventing us from manifesting our empathy.
Empathy can bring people of different colours, races and religions to a peaceful co-existence
Education, at home, in school and at work, can definitely overcome these barriers. We must teach ourselves and our loved ones to take time to understand those who are unfortunate and try to see things from their perspectives. We should try to broaden our landscape and not just be concerned with our own happiness, wants and achievements. We should try to cultivate empathy in ourselves and reach out to people who are in need. Travelling, reading books, volunteering or even abstaining ourselves from indulging too much in our materialistic lives can greatly improve our understanding of how other people live their lives and see things from their vantage point. These activities can help to decrease prejudice and discrimination and bring us, people of different colours, races and religions, closer to a peaceful co-existence in this small world of ours.
by Hanna Abdelwahab