“You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.”
August 11, 2006
Xavier University Commencement Address
New Orleans, Louisiana
The above quote from then, Senator Obama, expresses a point of view about empathy that is getting a lot of press lately. Some see the lack of empathy as a reason for many of our problems with young people. A debate over the value of empathy surfaced recently when President Obama announced his criteria for a Supreme Court justice. And, some are even accusing President Obama of not having empathy.
What is empathy? Do you value empathy? Is empathy a strength or weakness? These questions are a few queries about what I think is an important intellectual trait or virtue.
Empathy – the imaginative act of stepping into another person’s shoes and viewing the world from her/his perspective – is a trait that many great leaders have and many poor leaders need. Roman Krznaric, a teacher who runs courses on how to expand your empathetic imagination and is the expert on empathy at The School of Life in London, believes empathy is the key to success in most human endeavors.
Empathy is different from pity or sympathy. If you see a report on poor people about how they are suffering in today’s economy and you feel sorry for them, then you are not expressing empathy, but most likely you are feeling pity or sympathy. On the other hand, if you try to “put yourself in their shoes,” if you seek the understanding of how they feel, what they feel, when they feel, where they feel, etc., then I believe you are expressing empathy.
When someone demonstrates and chants “death to America!,” it is important for us to not be “deficit in empathy.” By simply saying they hate us and not, figuratively, putting ourselves in their shoes, does nothing but build a wall between us. Usually, when dealing with such people, that wall is torn down with war. Consider people and what resulted from dealing with the likes of, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and members of Al Qaeda. In my opinion, we need to emphasize peace and not war. Empathy is a start to “giving peace a chance!”
So how does one develop empathy? I think if we want to develop and understand empathy, it’s important to understand that the opposite of empathy is self-centeredness. Yes, if you want to have empathy you must strive not to be self-centered. Think of it by using the following question: “How can you fairly judge others’ ideas and beliefs unless you learn how to take on the perspectives of others and to accurately think as they think?”
My mom used to say that we should strive to give people the benefit of the doubt. I remember her telling me to give someone the benefit of the doubt on numerous occasions when I was a child and frankly, I really didn’t understand what she meant. Now, after many years since her death, I now understand that she was referring to empathy. The word, empathy, wasn’t in her vocabulary, but I really believe that’s what she meant. To paraphrase a quote, that I think is from Mark Twain,”It’s amazing how much my mom has learned since I’ve grown-up!” :-)
Another point of view regarding empathy can be found by going to the Foundation Of Critical Thinking. When a person is thinking rationally and in a fair-minded manner, intellectual empathy is an essential trait.
So, if a group of people are chanting “death to America,” I believe we need to take on their perspectives and, as accurately as possible, think as they think. Then and only then, should we consider judging them!
What are your thoughts on empathy? Empathetically expressed, of course! :-)