The Empathy Switch
Posted on April 18, 2013
I’m sure you know the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Sympathy is what you feel when you are genuinely sorry for someone’s experiences. It’s when you acknowledge the difficulty in someone’s life at a given moment. When you sympathize with someone, you may try to comfort them because you know they need it.
Empathy is what you feel when you’re not just sorry for a person, but you can actually relate to the things they are experiencing and feeling. Either you have gone through the same experience, or you have experienced something different that has created in you the same sort of emotions and reactions and conditions that they now find themselves in.
I suspect that empathy does not come naturally to humanity.
It doesn’t seem like an innate part of our instincts. Whether you believe we are selfish because of an evolutionary need to stay alive or because of sin nature (and I tend to believe it’s a little bit of both), you surely recognize with me a lack of empathy in our world. I won’t say that it’s better or worse than at any other point in history, but the way it is now bothers me. When a person lacks empathy, they lack what Thurston Clarke argued made Bobby Kennedy a unique policitican: a moral imagination, which allowed him to envision himself in the shoes of almost everyone he met.
A lack of empathy looks like this:
- Young teenagers raping an unconscious classmate in Steubenville, Ohio, and the victim’s peers responding by ridiculing and abusing her further.
- Virtually the same thing happening in Nova Scotia, Connecticut, and other places that never make the news.
- People feeling that they have the right to spew hatred toward a family who just lost their son to suicide, simply because they disagree with the political and religious views of the young man’s father.
- College students setting up an elaborate “prank” to record a roommate’s intimate moments with someone with the intention of embarrassing and ridiculing him, not thinking about the emotional toll it would take on him. He almost immediately committed suicide.
- A nation ignoring the disappearance of young Black women and only giving significant news coverage to missing white ladies. (How many famous missing/murdered white women and children can you name? How many famous missing/murdered women or children of color can you name?)
- People accusing the grieving parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School of being pawns or liars.
- People saying horrible things about the parents who brought their baby to the screening of The Dark Knight Rises that ended up being the scene of a massacre.
- The fact that 19,000 military personnel report being the victims of rape every year, and the fact that our societal rhetoric places the blame on the victims instead of the perpetrators or the rape culture of the military.
- The way fat people are treated in America.
- A man seeing an unfamiliar Black teenager in a hoodie and assuming that he’s up to know good, then following that kid, confronting him, engaging in an altercation, and then shooting and killing him.
- The tendency to criticize victims of natural disasters, saying, “Well, why were you living in Tornado Alley/a floodplain/along a fault line?” or “Why didn’t you just leave earlier?”
- The existence of rape culture.
- The celebration and defense of comedians who make disgusting rape jokes.
- My friend being told that her cousin who was killed in Afghanistan “got what he signed up for.”
- The ease with which people villainize those who are on federal assistance as crooks and scammers rather than individuals in poverty.
- Anger at the idea of multilingual signs or audio options, evidenced by the frequency with which people reference “press one for English” as a bad thing.
I hate that I could continue with this list so easily.
It makes me wonder: are we broken? Are we incapable of empathy? Are we unable to see ourselves in the experiences of others and recognize that their lives matter as much as ours?
There is something to be hopeful about, though: I don’t think empathy is something a person is born with and can never be learned. It takes practice. I believe we all have an empathy switch, and it’s something that many of us aren’t used to flipping. We need to get more accustomed to it.
We need to turn on our empathy more often by practicing the skill of recognizing ourselves in others.
How can we do this? Here are some tips for training yourself to flip the empathy switch.
- I love the first idea presented by blogger Beth Steffaniak from a post she wrote in 2010: “Imagine the person as a child. If you have photos of the person as a child, use them to help you visualize. Often when we consider the person in the vulnerable stage of childhood, our defenses tend to lower and lessen.”
- To practice developing empathy, you must stop ridiculing people. When someone is the easy target of a joke because of how they look, what they’re wearing, what they’ve just said, or something they can’t help about themselves, stop. For the sake of empathy, imagine something similar about yourself–a time you’ve said something embarrassing or gone out of the house wearing something ridiculous or believed something you don’t believe anymore. Then just don’t go for the easy joke.
- Take a break from visiting websites that ridicule people. Some of those sites are really funny, but if there is meanness in them, avoid them. At least until you feel like your empathy skills have kicked into high gear. Visiting sites like People of Wal-Mart may give you a laugh, but it can also help you develop the habit of turning off your empathy switch.
- Watch movies. Read books. Watch TV shows. Seek out characters who live life differently from you. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit taught me to look beyond my own experience and recognize that while I haven’t ever been in love with another woman, I do know what it feels like to desire love. I was suddenly able to empathize with someone I thought was quite different from me. Hedwig & The Angry Inch did something similar.
- When a story is in the news, imagine yourself in the shoes of the person who has made a mistake or experienced a tragedy. When someone dies in an accident from irresponsibly speeding, imagine all the times you have driven recklessly or narrowly avoided a wreck. If someone gets arrested for selling bath salts, think of a time when you were desperate for money and you made a bad decision because of it. If a woman is raped, think about what it would be like to go through that before you start questioning her story. If someone dies while performing a risky stunt, think about the time you were fifteen and did something stupid while skiing or skateboarding or riding in a car. You don’t have to excuse bad behavior (like in the case of a reckless driver or someone selling an illegal substance) to be empathetic, but thinking about all the times you’ve screwed up can at least help you to see someone who has behaved badly as a real person.
Maybe if we practice, we can become a more empathetic society. I hope so. I’d like to think so.