“Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will even be worse the next time you open your eyes. That’s the kind of world we live in. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won’t make time stand still.” -from Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I did not personally know anyone who was killed or injured in Orlando last weekend. Yet, I am grieving. I am angry and frustrated. I despair. I feel the urge to do something, to say something, to love in such a way that will tip the scales in the other direction. As such, I want to talk about empathy, one of the most valuable and holy things in the world. *

For most of us, our introduction to empathy probably came in the form of learning the Golden Rule as a child: treat others as you wish to be treated. You were being asked to imagine yourself as another person, to feel as they might be feeling in a given moment so as to consider how your actions might affect that them.

Empathy is emotional flexibility. The more similar someone is to you, the less flexibility it requires to empathize with them. The more different or unfamiliar, the more flexibility it requires. If we are to live in a better world, we must strive to increase our flexibility.


Level 1: Empathizing with the similar  

If you are a Black male teenager, it is not difficult to identify with Trayvon Martin. If you are a parent with a school-aged child, it is not difficult to mourn for the children of Columbine or Sandy Hook.  If you are a female who has been sexually abused, the Stanford woman’s words probably resonated in your soul. If you are of Syrian descent, then the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have died in civil war or while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea are probably never far from your thoughts. If you are a veteran of war who has contemplated suicide, then every article about the high rate of suicide among veterans is probably another stab in your heart. If you are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, then you probably imagined yourself in the Pulse night club in Orlando last weekend.

That could have been me, you think. And it is easy to see yourself in that person because you share some vital piece of identity with them.

This is important. This is holy. You have stepped outside of yourself.

Some people might say this is not selflessness but selfishness. That the concern you feel for the victims in such an instance is really just the self-preservation instinct kicking in. I do not think they are wrong—but only if you stop there. But in my opinion, we are given the ability to feel deeply for those who are similar to us but who are not us as a starting point. It is the first lesson of the first unit of the introductory course on Empathy. If we are to live in a better world, we must take the rest of the course.

Level 2: Empathizing with the familiar

I think the next step in increasing our ability to empathize is through the love we feel for those who are close to us. Because we care about that person, we care about what happens to them even if they are different from us in some aspect we perceive as important.

This is the parent who sheds their transphobia after their child tells them they want to transition, the friend who feels outrage when people misconstrue Islam because her best friend is Muslim, the advocate who fights for the rights of the differently abled because their brother is blind. This is the teacher who will not allow “gay” to be used as an insult in his classroom because he has seen language damage students before, the man that refuses to laugh at his friend’s joke about domestic violence because he saw his mother abused by his father.

We know these people. They are not us, but they matter to us, so we are able to imagine how they feel because we know their stories. They have shared them with us, or we have been alongside them as those stories unfolded. We are sometimes even able to extend that concern to those we do not know but who are similar to the ones we love. We do not want any of them to experience discrimination, exclusion, or harm. We acknowledge their humanity. So we alter our own behaviors to ensure that we do not contribute to their suffering, and we might advocate for other people or entire systems to likewise alter their actions.

Level 3: Empathizing with the unfamiliar

The next level of empathy asks us to empathize with those with whom we believe are completely unfamiliar. They do not seem similar to us or anyone we know. I believe there is a wide gap between the previous level of empathy and this one. I think most people never make it here because it requires a great amount of emotional flexibility.

If you are neither of Greek descent nor close to anyone who is, then the country’s economic crisis is a difficult thing to comprehend. If you are neither intersex nor know close to anyone who is, then you probably do not even know what “intersex” even means. If have neither been poor nor close to anyone who is, then you are probably baffled as to how people remain poor. If we do not know anyone who has died as a result of an inaccurate drone strike, then we have trouble imagining that anyone who didn’t deserve to has been killed as result of this method.

Empathizing with those who we deem completely unfamiliar is like imagining what it would be like to step onto Mars. Yes, we know it’s there. We’ve seen the pictures, and we’ve seen some movies with really great special effects. But it is so far removed from anything we have personally experienced that our attempts to imagine it are vague and fuzzy.

Yet, I think we must try. Our world is more connected than ever thanks to technology, so it has become much more difficult to uphold the delusion that those who are unfamiliar to us do not exist and are not just as human as we are. The information is there, the voices are telling their stories. But we have to choose to open our eyes, to uncover our ears, to unstop our hearts.

Level 4: Empathizing with those who harm

In my opinion, this is the most difficult level. It is by far the level that requires greatest emotional flexibility not because the person is so unfamiliar, but because we simply do not want to. It is uncomfortable, it is painful, it is shameful. Perhaps the perpetrator is too familiar to us, and we do not want to acknowledge that we share so much with someone who could do something so terrible. Perhaps we are so close to the victims that to identify with the one who harmed them feels like a betrayal. Whatever the reason may be, we are encouraged to despise those who commit crimes. It feels safe. If feels right.

As Lin Manuel Miranda once said in an interview when asked about his favorite fictional villain, “I don’t believe in villains.” If we are to insist on the humanity of everyone, then we cannot deny the humanity of anyone. We cannot simply write off thieves, rampant racists, murders, and rapists as deranged individuals.

Instead, I think—when the pain is not so fresh—we need to step back and try to empathize with that person. Why did he do it? Where did his hatred, anger, or rage come from? Why was that person so unable to empathize with those they harmed? How has society played a role in creating this person? How has biology? What could we have done to prevent this person from feeling like this was his only option? What can we could we do to prevent others from feeling similarly?

That is not to say empathy means we should not seek justice. But I think empathizing at this level is unimaginably valuable. It asks us to exchange the instant gratification revenge might provide for the long-term benefits of wisdom. Revenge seeks to ensure that the particular individual will never commit that crime again, while wisdom seeks to figure out how to ensure that nobody will ever commit that crime again.

There is certainly much more to say on the subject of empathy, but I think this is a good stopping place. Later this week, I will post Part II, which will discuss how I think we can expand our capacity for empathy as well as the importance of understanding its limitations.


*I am a teacher and an author, not a psychologist or sociologist. I wrote this post simply to say what I feel compelled to say about empathy. I do not presume to be an expert. 
**A note on the use of pronouns: I’m eternally bothered by the fact that English does not have a non-gendered singular pronoun. When I write, I switch between, he, she, and they/them. In most cases I am referring to a hypothetical non-gendered person. 

One thought on “ON EMPATHY, PART I

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