When I was 10 years old, I was sitting beside an elderly friend of the family in a country church service. She looked toward the front of the church where a wooden sign displayed information about the morning’s attendance and offering amounts and then commented on what she saw there. I remember turning to her in amazement. “You can read that from here?”, I asked. She looked at me with concern. “ You mean you can’t?” “I can’t even tell there are numbers on that board”, I answered. Needless to say, I was in the optometrists chair within the next few days where it was found that my eye sight was very bad indeed. I marveled then and alsotoday about the fact that I had no idea that my vision was decreasing AND that every day I was seeing the world totally differently from all of the people around me. I assumed that everyone else saw exactly like me.
A few days ago I was listening to a political commentator speak about the huge importance of empathy and how it was invaluable for individuals, corporations and governments. She was proposing that our lack of empathy was so problematic that we needed to teach it in our schools. My jaw dropped, I hit the “pause” button on the Ipod and turned to my husband and kids who were riding in the car with me. “What!? Why in the world would we have to teach this in school? Don’t we all already know how to feel empathy? Isn’t it part of what it means to be human? Isn’t it hardwired into our make up?” Empathy has always been something that just moves inside of me and so I just thought that it came equally naturally to everyone else.
For me empathy means the ability to imagine the feelings and experiences of another. (And when I use the term imagine here I am referring to an emotional imagination, not just a vision in my head.) The dictionary on my computer actually says the ability to share or understand, but in my experience unless I have actually experienced the same situation, I can’t really share or understand their feelings. (Perhaps it’s just semantics.) Empathy means that I can look at a person or situation that is different socially, culturally, religiously, etc. etc. and still say, “Here is a person that is in some fundamental way very much like me. We are not so different.” I am identifying with their humanity.
So, help me see with different eyes. I know what I hope to be true and what I want to believe, but I would like to hear about what you all think the reality is of our relationship to empathy.