On empathy

08 July 2016

Before I knew what empathy was, I knew that I had a skill with it. In that context, at that time, it was nothing to be proud of. It was empathy by way of survival, a strategy I had unconsciously devised to figure out what the silent people around me weren’t saying. They did not state their desires or needs; most likely, they did not know them well enough to articulate them, and they didn’t try. True to feminine expectation, I devoted myself to detecting and perceiving what they were thinking, what they wanted, so that I could figure out how to make them happy. I rarely got that result. This was a superficial empathy, limited by the depth of my own experience, entirely aimed at the goal of keeping waters still and unrippled. It was not truly empathy. It was not a good strategy. Submerging yourself for the sake of others’ silence rarely is.

Do you know what empathy is? You would be easily forgiven for giving a negative answer to that question. Empathy, a slippery concept to begin with, has gone from an obscure, less fashionable cousin of the more socially celebrated “sympathy” to the favorite buzzword of thought leaders, employed within professional or political contexts with increasing regularity and an air of self-satisfied disruption. Look at this brilliant new tool we’ve just found. It’s revolutionary. We just discovered it. Aren’t we brilliant for doing so? We can use it to get anything we want. All we have to do is figure out what other people want. Step three: profit.

By definition, empathy is: “The ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings.” Many years managed to bring me to the true meaning of this definition. I have evolved my own empathy. I have learned to separate it from my own needs, to extract from it my own ego. I was surprised to discover this actually keeps my ego healthier, independent, balanced. It means I can let go of anger, let go of result. It means that empathy is not just something that I give to others, but it’s something I can ask for from others. It’s also something that I can give to myself.

I was initially pleased to the point of overwhelm when I first started seeing empathy as a stated value in my professional industry. After all, I had done work to advocate for its value there. I spoke of its role in education. I spoke in favor of emphasizing the needs and goals of people who use what our industry produces. I tried to highlight how these oh so soft skills of perception and thought and communication and innovation were something that many traditionally marginalized people were very good at, and we could be assets in the industry because of it.

What I did not say was that traditionally marginalized people are very good at empathy because we have to be, because it is how we survive. We are practiced in understanding what the people traditionally in power, who are not us, who are never us, believe and want. We have no other choice. We have to make them happy.

And so we watch them on stages, in spotlights, in positions of authority, telling us they are coming from a place of empathy, and it’s just a word now. It’s a tool to get what they want. It’s possible we’re the ones that handed the tool to them, even though we were just trying to give ourselves a hand up at the time.

Attached to the definition I quoted earlier is a helpful example sentence that clarifies: “Empathy is a distinctly human capability.” Which is true. Humans are unique in their use of tools. They also claim the dubious distinction of being excellent in their misuse of tools. Empathy is a tool, but if it’s nothing but a tool, it loses its meaning. At best, it becomes unproductive. At worst, it becomes a loaded gun.

What is empathy? Empathy is the space in the margins. It’s the natural and right realm of the disadvantaged. It is the invitation for the over-advantaged to enter the margins. It is quiet, reflective, but it sometimes erupts in emotion, in frustration and noise. It takes time. It takes courage. It requires humility and it encourages expansion. It is never complete. It has no goal. It’s not a means to an end. Rather, empathy is the effort we put into understanding ourselves. Its promise is that if you go far enough down, you understand we’re all the same, that if you believe in yourself, you must, by extension, believe in everyone with the same ferocity and spirit. Its price is that a journey that far is difficult, painful and long, and there are no shortcuts.

It’s taken me years to understand empathy and over a full year to write an essay about empathy, for the simple reason that far better to demonstrate it than talk about it. Which is a good place to shut up, and go on to do better.


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