Without a doubt, one of the most misused words in the English language is ’empathy.’
Too often, it’s amalgamated with another commonly used word — sympathy — when, in reality, the two terms are very different from one another.
And I’m not faulting anyone for it. I’ve made the same mistake. I studied English in college and it’s only recently that I really got a firm grasp on how to properly utilize the word ’empathy.’
Whenever something bad happens, we tell people to empathize for the victims. During this presidential election, we often heard about a lack of empathy for certain subgroups of our population.
But what does that really mean?
To sympathize is to have a visceral, emotional reaction. When you hear about a shooting at an Orlando night club, you sympathize for the mothers who lost their children. When you hear about refugees crossing the Mediterranean in shoddy boats, you sympathize for the infants who must make that dangerous trek, too young to process the chaos that’s even causing it.
Having sympathy is understanding that something unfortunate happened, and feeling bad about it.
But to empathize is to have a real human connection. When you hear about a tragedy, and instead of just “feeling bad,” you put yourself in the shoes of the victim, and try to imagine how they are feeling. Not how you are feeling about it, but how they are feeling.
And that’s a concept that too many people are unable to grasp.
You saw it time and time again during the election. When certain minority groups were marginalized, it was the majority that told them how they should feel.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my nearly 30 years of living, it’s that we have no right to pass judgment on anybody unless we’ve lived in their shoes and fully understand what they are going through.
I know what it is like to be a white man in the U.S.A. It’s all I’ve ever known. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. To be black. To be Latino. To be gay.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a Muslim living in the U.S. during a time when our president-elect once suggested banning all adherents of that religion from entering our borders.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a transgender, living at a time when states are diminishing their rights.
And that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion on women’s rights, or on Black Lives Matter, or on Islam. But that opinion should be forged when taking into account the thoughts and feelings of those who would be most affected by a certain issue.
When people were rioting in St. Louis and Baltimore, after the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, we decried them as savages and animals.
What we didn’t do is try to see the world through their eyes. Understand why they were mad.
When there were no black Oscar nominees for a second straight year, and a backlash ensued, we laughed it off as a ridiculous complaint.
What we didn’t do is understand that what the frustration was really about was that the omission represented the lack of opportunity that exists in Hollywood for black actors, in comparison to their white counterparts.
We react based on our own life experiences, without trying to understand the other.
And I think that’s the true mark of a thoughtful, cultured person. To understand that there are a lot of viewpoints in any given issue, and to try and see the world outside of your own bubble.
Once we see where they’re coming from, then we can form an educated viewpoint, rather than speaking from ignorance.
It’s certainly not easy. But just trying to have more empathy will go a long way towards bringing the people in this world closer together.
I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.
Let’s all try to be better.