By Emily Alexander
A few days after the election, I overheard a few male students talking about the effect Donald Trump’s victory seemed to be having on the country. One said that it seemed a little ridiculous for schools to be canceling tests just so people could sit around and talk. I’ve thought a lot about this comment in the last few weeks. As a white man in a small Idaho town, the reactions of many liberals around the country may seem overly dramatic and unreasonable. But as a Latinx facing their own or their family’s potential deportation? As Black citizens whose president-elect’s company was sued for racial discrimination? As a woman who has been groped, grabbed, and sexually assaulted by men like Trump? Making an effort to understand how people are feeling right now is essential to the distant dream we have of a unified country. This is called empathy.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.” Expanding and embracing this definition is one of the most necessary actions we can take in a time like this. This video explores the difference between empathy and sympathy, and how empathy “fuels connection” while sympathy “fuels disconnection.” Empathy occurs when someone is in a deep hole and instead of peering down at them from above and offering our condolences or silver linings, we crawl into that hole with them. And we sit there in the dark, together. We feel, we are felt. We understand, we are understood.
I love this idea. For me, empathy is one of the most important qualities a person can have. It’s the driving force behind human connection, behind kindness and compassion. And therefore, I believe that empathy is where real change starts.
Of course, it’s difficult to practice empathy when our history, physicality, or personality is different from that of the person in pain. In a lot of ways, it sometimes seems like empathy is impossible. I will never directly experience how it feels to be Black in America. I can try to understand, but I can never know or experience the generational trauma and oppression. We must have empathy and it’s missing in our country—in men like the one I overheard a few weeks ago, in many of the white Americans who voted for Trump without taking a moment to consider the genuine fear and anxiety this presidency causes for others.
But even just reaching for an empathic point of view is easier said than done. Assuming a direct correlation between education and empathy neglects some of the most basic aspects of what it means to have empathy. Knowing the truth of a person or experience is far different than feeling that truth. Sitting in a classroom learning about the long history of our country’s systemic racism might make me feel sympathetic, but reading a textbook is not likely to teach me how to empathize. Facts don’t necessarily mean much when the thoughts and feelings of human beings are barely acknowledged. While education is a step toward empathy, it is a small one. Some people fail to connect the information they are presented with to the people who have lived it.
BBC News has an interesting article that outlines three ways to be more empathetic: make a habit of “radical listening,” look for the human behind everything, and become curious about strangers. I think that these characteristics really do make up the skeleton of empathy, and bringing these qualities to life is one of the most profound and rewarding things we can do as human beings. Not only do we become more tender towards others, but this tenderness opens us up and allows us to experience stronger, more sincere connections. And in extending empathy, it becomes possible to realize that we are actually not as alone in our pain as we tend to think we are.
Our country is filled with a lot of people in so much pain. Regardless of whether or not one individual feels the same kind of pain for the same reasons, they do not have the authority to invalidate another person’s feelings. We all want to be heard, understood, felt. The consequences our choices have on people who are different than us is real, and it is begging to be heard. Will you do your best to listen?