Why We Need Empathy
“We are all so desperate to be understood, we forget to be understanding.” – Beau Taplin
I recently attended a screening of a documentary telling the story of those that have found themselves unhoused, or commonly referred to as homeless. It was a very emotional screening, depicting these individuals as humans with stories. And to that, we can all relate. I mean we are all humans with stories.
As I sat in the room full of people who were attending this screening, I grew a bit irritated at those around me. One woman continued to talk about irrelevant things throughout the screening, and the man across the aisle was texting loudly on his phone. My irritation grew, and then it hit me. I thought about how the majority could watch this film and feel compassion and a great desire to help, to understand those about whom we have just heard their story. (Ahem, me included.) Especially in this new light, we could give an extra element of understanding, of empathy, to strangers.
But what happens when we walk out the door? What happens to our empathy, to our understanding?
It can be a lot easier to have compassion for a stranger who is going through a hard time because we empathize. We manage to see beyond irrelevant conversation, and petty annoyances to a greater human condition. And for the most part, no one really objects. We can all agree, it’s a good thing to help others. That seems obvious and practically unanimous. We readily join a group packing food for unfed children half way across the world. We happily compile our unwanted clothes to take to the local donation store. Even supporting a fundraiser in good faith is an understood obligation. However, in some ways, there is still a disconnect. We are feeling good helping the homeless, the unfed, or even those affected by loss or natural disaster, and yet, there is so much anger and resentment within our own circles of friends, families and communities. How is this possible?
Forgiving and seeing the humanity in our friends, neighbors and family is a lot harder than buying a stranger a meal.
What about the friend that wronged us? What about the woman who cut us off last week on the road? What about the co-worker that didn’t send an invite to the latest get together?
By no means am I advocating to eliminate helping charitable causes. Absolutely not. What I am saying is that we, as imperfect humans, can extend this compassion to those around us, strangers and non-strangers alike. We join our faith-based cause or local soup kitchen for a night of giving. Yet, when it comes to giving to those that we feel aren’t deserving, we withhold our generosity.
When we give on our terms, we feel good.
The hard part comes when we are asked to give, and the terms aren’t so pleasant. We may be asked to give kindness to the child that was rude to our child. We may be asked to give compassion to the person of a different race, religion, or political affiliation. We may be asked to give patience to the tween who acts out but just needs steady guidance. We may be asked to hold our tongue when the latest gossip circles in our direction. Whatever it may be, these circumstances can often be a lot more challenging than bringing in canned food to the local shelter.
When we hear someone’s story, we can feel compassion. We can identify with how we are similar, or even how it could have been us. The woman with kids running from a bad situation. Well, I have kids. I get it, I can help. The man who lost his job after having surgery. Sure, I’ve had surgery. It could have gone awry. I get it, I can help. The woman who returned from the army, serving her country, coming back to raised and now unaffordable rent. My housing payment has gone up before. I get it, I can help.
My point is, we see a commonality, a humanness – we see ourselves – and thus, we have compassion. That’s the beauty of the human heart. With a few variations, it beats the same in all of us. It closes when we feel hurt, fearful, or too vulnerable. It’s our ego that gets in the way. Our ego puts filters on our giving as to who is deserving and who is not.
Not everyone has pure motives or intentions. Some people are downright mean. Some people will never appreciate or return your kindness or compassion. It doesn’t make them better or worse than you. In fact, it has nothing to do with you. It’s their deal and don’t let it stop you. Know your boundaries and just continue to give compassion, if nothing else.
We are all different until we aren’t.
Our neighbors of a different race, color, gender, religion and lifestyle may not be our best friend. But I bet if we gave a moment to hear their story, we may see that we are more alike than we are different.
And that is the kind of charity that also helps the world go around.
I have been fortunate in my life to talk with and spend time with people from all walks of life. I find that to be such a blessing, despite some situations not wanting to repeat. I have been on the receiving end of compassion and understanding. It saved my life, and I will forever pay that forward. I can’t afford not to, as resentment and anger are no good to me, hurting me more than anyone else. Working to understand others gives me insight into how another person may think, opening my own perspective to something that I never would have thought before that encounter. Now, sometimes I don’t always agree. In fact, some of these stories from people I meet are exactly what I do not want for myself or for those I love. But I wouldn’t have known this, or known my own boundaries a little better had I not taken the step to get to know the perspective of another.
We can be different, and that’s OK, too.
It’s great to help the homeless and have compassion for those less fortunate. But what matters just as much is to have compassion and understanding for those just as fortunate that happen to bother us the most (even if they are texting or chatting during a presentation).