This Crazy Thing Called Empathy

Annie Roske, Editor-In-Chief

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Psychologically, empathy is the ability to identify and share in other’s feelings. It is crucial in developing stable relationships and trust between people. Social empathy builds on that foundation and adds aspects of context and perspective. For example, social empathy involves understanding others life experiences and using that understanding to connect with their opinions, despite their perspectives being different than yours.

In a world where the social, cultural, and political arena can feel divided, social empathy is critical in moving past any initial separation. Politically, this split is apparent in the bipartisan political system in the United States. It is easy to assume a republican individual has beliefs that directly contradict that of a democratic voter. Assumptions like these make finding a middle ground almost impossible. Aspects of social empathy act as a stepping stool to eventually reach that compromise of beliefs. It is not about giving up what you believe or sacrificing your values, but more about recognizing the experiences that gave you those values and accepting that not everyone has the same experience or life circumstances as you.

Social empathy is also important in day to day conversations. As a student, I have overheard countless conversations where individuals say tone-deaf and selfish comments about events that don’t involve them. An example of this was when a student made a comment about a fellow school in the area getting a day off of school after experiencing an attack on their campus the day prior. I heard the phrase “They’re so lucky they don’t have school today. I don’t want to be here.” I thought to myself “yes, and we’re so lucky we all were able to go home from school alive yesterday.” It was blatantly disrespectful and unkind. Any amount of empathy would have prevented this event if the student had thought about others experiences, not just their own.

A pillar in social empathy is understanding. Growing up has shown me the importance of understanding that not everyone has the same circumstances as me. I had to develop the ability to look past my bubble of privilege and see into the world of others. I may not be able to fully understand what they’re going through, but I can respect that they may have vastly different feelings and opinions than me, and begin to find a middle ground. Once I was able to do this, the dramatic gap in opinions began to close and opposing perspectives became something of value and something to learn from instead of something to fear.

The lack of empathy the world is facing is a threat to the kindness the world desperately needs. With divide becoming apparent in social, political, and cultural sectors, it is crucial we develop the ability to recognize others positions and focus less on differences between groups of people. We need to focus more of our energy on not just having respect, empathy, and kindness, but showing it as well. In the wise words of Tim McGraw, “Always stay humble and kind.”