Empathy Is Complicated

Empathy has become a quality that so many people claim to have, but very few actually comprehend. It’s not about understanding the emotional burdens of the downtrodden — that’s easy. One does not have to be empathetic to feel a sorrowful connection to a starving orphan in Uganda. That only means you’re not an asshole… great, but not special.

Real empathy is about being able to identify with the feelings of everyone, which is really hard. It’s about granting legitimacy and validity to those that don’t seem to deserve it. The medical industry gets this. A very lovely nurse once explained to me that rule #1 of the healthcare business is that you just can’t tell a patient that they’re overreacting. Whatever pain or anxiety they’re feeling is completely real to them, even if it appears routine or unsubstantial to you. Thus, doctors and nurses everywhere are patiently nodding their heads, taking as much complaining and abuse as they can, and doing their best to mitigate suffering and find solutions. If there’s a better metaphor for true empathy in a broader sense, I can’t think of it.

So extrapolate that idea into everyday life. For me, and I hate to say this, but I often find myself feeling surrounded by idiots. Watching television, stuck in traffic, waiting in lines, on the internet… surrounded, everywhere. I’m working on that nasty disposition, and part of that is acknowledging that I have no idea what compels people to be who they are, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. Their feelings and beliefs might be ridiculous and misguided, in my opinion, but they remain a simple product of life experiences, random biological happenings, relationships, education, and so on — just like you and me. So who is more real?

True empathy requires work. Rolling your eyes or beeping the horn in traffic is actually effortless and inconsequential. Being patient and letting the gazillions of asshole drivers out there have their way — that’s hard work. When a friend needs empathy, “let me know what I can do,” or “I’ve been there before,” doesn’t mean shit, because it requires no effort or understanding. Unless you’re Mother Theresa, empathy should feel like work, even if it’s work you want. Making a joke, buying a little gift, cooking a meal, or just listening to complaints and acknowledging that, yes, everyone is perfectly entitled to their own feelings… that’s the work of empathy, and it makes a difference.

Also, don’t confuse the work of empathy with the work of fixing problems. This is a classic issue in relationships between men and women (which I, a very well-intentioned “fixer,” can never seem to stop myself from doing). Generally, women tend to want to express their feelings and have their male counterpart be empathetic, whereas men often mistake this expression as a request for help. Helping is not a way of expressing that one understands, but rather a nice way of saying, “I could handle this if I were you.” You just have to be supportive and patient. That’s tricky, but so important.

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© 2012, Ian Mathias