Notes On Empathy

Empathy is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? And, if it’s so simple, why is there such a lack of it, especially in a time when we have enough history, knowledge, and more to understand the suffering of others? Why do people have to take to the streets year after year to defend their existence when their existence should be protected? Why must anyone have to fight for a peaceful life with their fundamental human rights intact because hate deemed them as “the other” somewhere along the line? I don’t have all the answers to that, but I do have one — it’s because too many people have allowed their privilege to make them complacent and, in turn, have forgotten how to care for others who don’t share their same situation.

I’ll be the first to say that I’ve experienced privilege in my lifetime. I may not be rich, but I’m still a cis white woman, and I’m aware that just that alone has granted me more privilege than most. Sure, I’ve been scared to walk home alone in the dark, but I’ve never feared for my life after being pulled over by a police officer or been concerned for my safety because of who I chose to love, for example. I’ll never understand the fear that many face each day, but I’m making a choice to listen to their struggle so that I can 1) understand their experiences and 2) change my own perspectives, attitudes, actions, and more so that I can do better. Sometimes this may mean facing uncomfortable truths or biases I didn’t even recognize in myself, but that’s part of empathy; that’s part of making society better for those it has wronged for far too long.

As I sit here writing this,  I know my words will probably make people angry, perhaps even some people that I know. But that’s okay. I’d instead take misplaced anger from others than continue to live a life living in ignorance of what’s happening around me. I’ll face anger to fight for the rights of those around me. Maybe if we took more time to listen to each other and to recognize our personal world isn’t a reflection of the entire world around us, we could move toward breaking down the barriers of privilege that continue to hurt many within our society. Listening may feel like a small act when faced with so many changes that need to be made. Still, it’s also a step forward in the right direction because, in reality, all people really want is to be heard and to be understood and to be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers. I’m just a person with a keyboard and a lot of thoughts bouncing around in her head. If I can leave you with anything, I want to leave you with this poem by Morgan Harper Nichols. In just a few words, she perfectly describes the action of empathy that I hope I exhibit and that I hope we can all learn to manifest now and in the future.

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