Division and conflict over a wide variety of topics and issues are a reality of life these days in the U.S. and across the globe. It truly is like we see different realities. What’s happened? Why are we so unable to understand others’ situations and perspectives? Could things improve if we expand our ability to imagine and empathize with other’s situations and perspectives?
Author and clergyman Stephen Mattson makes a powerful statement about this:
“When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive….
When you can’t imagine, you can’t celebrate, appreciate, admire, and joyfully love others. You disconnect yourself from humanity.
Imagination leads to empathy, empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to action, action leads to experience, and experience leads to wisdom — which leads to even more imagination.”
Imagining someone’s situation that is outside our personal experience with all our senses breaks down barriers. When you imagine what it is like for that person, what they are dealing with, you become more empathetic and understanding. And that opens doors to so much more.
So what exactly is empathy? How is it different from sympathy? I found this compilation to be helpful:
“Sympathy and empathy are both related to feelings, but they have different meanings and expressions. Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, or a recognition of what they are going through. Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another, understanding and experiencing their emotions or situation from their perspective, or using your experience to relate to their experience. Empathy is usually preferred over sympathy when dealing with difficult situations, because people need to feel understood rather than pitied.” Summarized from 5 sources and the web, Bing Search engine
Imagination is important to empathy because it takes you beyond your own thoughts and experiences. As we expand our ability to imagine and empathize, we open our minds and hearts to new things.
Let’s break down empathy a bit more. There are 3 different types of empathy – emotional, cognitive and compassionate empathy with problem solving. The last is actually a combination of the first two.
Here’s one way to describe the difference between the first two types –
“Cognitive empathy is an attempt to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, while emotional empathy is screaming in pain when someone else steps on a nail.” Source: MasterClass.com.
Emotional empathy most often occurs when someone experiences something you’ve been through before. You re-live that situation and its pain with that person. Even if you haven’t experienced the same thing but have a relationship with the person, emotional empathy is possible. That can be extended to others beyond your circle of friends who are dealing with similar things.
Cognitive empathy is a conscious effort to understand the perspective of someone else. You relate to what someone else is going through even if you’ve never experienced it yourself. You aren’t inserting your personal point of view. There’s no bias on your part and you’re not trying to insert your own experiences. You may happily help another person and might even understand the point of view of an individual. You don’t necessarily identify with what caused the problem in the first place but respond with empathy.
Compassionate Empathy combines the emotional and cognitive and goes farther. It means looking at a situation and trying to get at the cause. You analyze the underlying reasons why something happened, as well as the effects.
With this ability, you can demonstrate to a person that you understand where they’re coming from to the degree possible. You don’t offer any bias or prejudice. You may even offer an alternative way of thinking or some insight that helps the person in need.
Expanding Our Abilities and Impact
Empathy in any form makes the world a better place. It’s selfless and caring. It is also a powerful tool to apply in many situations in our fractured society and world. We are fortunate to have resources to help us expand our ability to imagine and empathize.
TED’s series “How to Be a Better Human” includes this article: 5 exercises to help you build more empathy | (ted.com) It includes 5 exercises to help build your empathy from Dr. Jamil Zaki, Psychology professor at Stanford University. Dr. Zaki believes we all have a responsibility to cultivate empathy in “the same way that we try to take care of our bodies or of our mental health…building empathy is a way to take care of our social health.”
I recommend Dr. Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki
Another resource was written specifically for educators but provides so much great content for everyone. Preventing Polarization: 50 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Empathy, Politics, and Civic Responsibility by Michelle Blanchet and Brian Deters
Each of us can make a difference if we make the choice and seek out the tools and opportunities to expand our ability to imagine and empathize.
I’m Carol Brusegar, author, photographer and curator of information. My focus is on gathering and writing on topics that enhance all our lives – regardless of our age. Topics include health and wellness, personal development, innovation and creativity, and a variety of helpful, practical tools and practices. I have a special interest in helping people over 50 years of age to create their 3rd Age – the next stage of their lives – to be the best it can be. Visit my Amazon Author Page to find my published books: https://amazon.com/author/carolbrusegar