A good working definition of “Empathy” is: “The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions”
I’ve been having this feeling a lot lately, as I closely follow the series of wildfires in Sonoma County. 26 years ago my home and neighborhood were literally obliterated by a firestorm as I fled in terror with my 10-year-old daughter. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs. So yes, I know how it feels. I hear the stories and they are my story.
I also hear wonderful, amazing, and heroic stories of rescue and stories that illustrate the outpouring of compassion and generosity that our fellow human beings are capable of. These stories are also familiar as I recall how many people were instantly available to my family to help us. We could not believe it! I remember my 10-year-old daughter being dumbfounded at the evacuation center. “Mom”, she said, “Why are these people being so nice to us”?
Recalling my daughter’s surprise that people were “so nice” got me to thinking even further about empathy. There are situations all over the world, or even in our own back yards, that deserve our compassion. And yet most of the time we are pretty oblivious to them. Why is this?
Maybe the answer is partly embedded into the definition of “Empathy” We “share” another persons experiences and emotions much more easily when we have had these experiences and emotions. We know these feelings intimately when we have had them.
Research bears this out. Sadly, we are much more “empathic” to individuals or sets of people when they are “like” us in some identifiable way. We are more compassionate to members of our own “tribe”
However, there is hope. There is a way to feel more compassion and empathy to people who seem different than we are.
The answer is, Just listen. Listen to the stories that people tell about the experiences they have had. Through the act of being fully present to another human being as they tell their story, the empathy can be built. You can enter into another persons experience this way. Neurologically, the formation of “Mirror neurons” happens when we are in deep connection to another as we listen and respond to what they say. These “Mirror” neurons are the basis of empathy. A vast majority of us are capable of forming them.
Empathy is the basis for forming deep connections in romantic relationships and friendships. It’s also the basis for finding compassion for groups of people who are different than we are. I think of empathy as “rocket fuel” because it works fast and efficiently to bring people into true “heart to heart” connection with one another.
And…it can be learned and practiced every day