With all that’s going on in the world today, maybe we need to revisit empathy. What is it? Why is it important to and for us?
My dictionary defines empathy this way: “the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand the person better; ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings.” I add that empathy is another form of appreciation, so we follow this thread and turn to a definition of appreciate, which is: “to be fully or sensitively aware of.” This leads to the definition of aware: “knowing or realizing; conscious.” You might say that empathy is having the conscious awareness (or at the very least the imagination needed) to be sensitive to or possessing the ability to understand and or be able to share the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others. Why is this important?
Well, there’s the Golden Rule—a very wise rule—that tells us to treat others as we would have them treat us. You can modify that to say (repeating from above) we are to be sensitive to or possess the ability or imagination to understand and or be able to share the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others in the way we would like them to do the same for us. Please understand that this does not mean we are to allow abuse in any form. There are things you should do about abuse in order to protect yourself, like remove yourself from it or self-protect until you can remove yourself from it; this includes others you may be protecting, as well. I’m talking about day-to-day thought processes and actions we come across that could benefit from more empathy, which, if we think about it, might actually curb some or most of the abuses that arise.
Unfortunately, there are times when this compassionate, empathetic part of us is blocked and it ends up as, “Treat others as they treat you, or how others before them have treated you.” Or, even worse, “Treat others in whatever way best serves you and your agenda,” when this is about greed or having power over others in a negative, abusive way. These are a sure-fire way to go nowhere fast, or into an abyss, not only in the physical realm but the mental, emotional, and spiritual ones as well.
What blocks empathy? There are lots of reasons, but we could say they include how empathy is demonstrated, or isn’t demonstrated, during our formative years, which may be what we mimic, even if we feel nudged to be empathetic. We might likely agree that having to stay so busy or burdened to survive leaves us little time to connect with and feel what’s really in our hearts. Or conversely, we may be frustrated because we feel we have so little that’s constructive or productive or meaningful to do that we focus on this rather than connecting with our emotional heart to determine what we can do. There’s also being so concerned with the self that the real needs (not imaginary ones) of others aren’t considered or even observed so they can be assisted in ways appropriate for all involved. Consistently imagining the worst can be a part of this as well, which depresses the body, mind, emotions, and spirit, all of which support empathy.
We all might take into consideration how this relates to our individual lives, but we can also expand that to what’s happening in the world. I recently heard researcher, author, and lecturer David Icke say that empathy is the failsafe mechanism of all actions. When empathy is blocked, this failsafe fails to assist or guide us. Not only does this affect those we show no empathy to or for, but it affects us as well. It feels really, really good to do something meaningful that benefits another or others in a way that’s appropriate and for the highest good of all involved, even if done at the inner level only, at times; and that goodness is what ripples outward and we attract more of. Maybe, just maybe, a lot, if not all, of what goes on in our personal and professional lives and the world is a result of faulty empathy. The mechanism seems to have gone awry in us, as humanity, for one reason or another.
Maybe it’s time we pause a moment and give all of this real consideration. Assess whether our lives are running us (including ragged), or are being run by others, rather than us running our lives, to the extent that we’re not conscious of lack of empathy in ourselves and in others—and the results of this, including those in positions of power who have been entrusted as administrators of matters concerning those they are supposed to be in service to, whether by selection or appointment.
Martin Luther King said:
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it BECAUSE it is right.
Imagine a mother and or father whose empathy is blocked. What do they teach their children? How do they treat their children? This may have been your own experience at times or much of the time. How did that feel? If it wasn’t your experience, how does it feel when you imagine it was? Do you want to repeat this pattern, or shift it?
Imagination is one of our most valuable resources. It is a powerful force within us that opens us to empathy and to solutions for the highest good of all involved. It leads us to head-and-heart alignment, which is a significant, if not critical, component of a fulfilling life experience for all involved.
I watched a video of a little girl, using her imagination in this way, who said that when she grows up, she wants to have a hotel where people come if they need a place to stay or food or a hug. She said they won’t need to give her any money, but if they want to give some because everyone at the hotel has been sweet to them, that’s okay; but they don’t have to. She pointed to her head and said, “I don’t want to live from this.” She then pointed to her heart and said, “I want to live from this.” Pointing to her heart two more times she said, “From this. This! All the way down to my toes.”
Two or more decades back I listened to a program on National Public Radio about an experiment to see if the gap between Americans and Russians could be bridged. Rooms were set up with the proper equipment to allow the two small groups of families to see and speak with each other. When it started, no one on either side did anything for a few minutes. Finally, one little American boy said, “When I come home from school, my mother gives me cookies and milk and we talk about my day. What do you do after school?” After several seconds passed, a Russian boy of the same age said, “When I come home from school, my mother also gives me cookies and milk, and we talk about my day.” Such similarity was a revelation to both sides: “They’re like us.”
The children, unaffected by years or decades of prejudice, led the way. Suddenly, all that either side had learned about being suspicious of or hating people they didn’t know, who lived in another part of the world, fell away. Everyone wanted to talk to everyone else, to learn what more they had in common, how many ways they were alike rather than different. Empathy and appreciation expanded in those rooms.
What would the quality of life on this planet be if we put aside our perceptions of how we are separate, respected our diversity, and welcomed the aspects of our oneness instead? Would or will this be easy to do? Maybe not at first, because we’ve practiced the opposite for so long, but it’s worth it for all of us to make the effort and keep making it. Granted, cultures do things that other cultures don’t align with, whether this is favorite foods or other matters. This is when a second Golden Rule would be beneficial: Do what you want to do or feel you need to do, as long as you don’t impose it on another. This one should cause people to pause and think before they act.
Albert Einstein said: A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Imagine all of us being touched by a beam of light that is filled with conscious awareness; and that light beam of consciousness sparked within us empathy, compassion, love, acceptance, caring, imagination, inspiration, integrity, mutual respect, and innovation. Imagine that spark caused to disappear: judgment of another based on how we look or the shade of our skin or on our level of education or on how we practice our spiritual aspects and paths (or don’t) or any other perceived separation. Imagine everyone following or striving to follow the two Golden Rules.
Imagine Earth as a version of the little girl’s hotel where everyone uses their head based on the guidance and wisdom that comes from their heart regarding themselves, all others, and our planet—perhaps one day, even beyond. Imagination and creativity; the failsafe mechanism of empathy to guide our thoughts, words, and actions; the two Golden Rules; and appreciation for the experiences of others, as well as our blessings. It’s a good practice, one you’ll appreciate.
Practice makes progress.