I believe there are moments in our lives when we may naturally become more empathetic—our daughter falls from the swing set and breaks her arm, our teen son breaks up with his girlfriend, our spouse is fighting cancer.
We’re actively putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes. Stepping out of our personal frame of reference and understanding another’s perspective. Empathizing.
For me, it was my mom experiencing Alzheimer’s. I wanted to both understand what was happening and to try and keep her as happy and stress-free as possible. I read books. I kept an eye on her. I tried to think what she might need before she even knew she needed it. What would I want if I was in her situation? What would be comforting?
For example, consider your peripheral vision being diminished—having more tunnel vision versus a full range of view. Complicate this by a reduced range of motion such that quickly turning to look behind you is not possible. Then add mild dementia to the mix.
A possible rational reaction if someone we can’t see, who hasn’t spoken, and is invading our personal space and touching us, maybe to harm us, would be to become frightened, agitated, vocal, concerned for our safety.
Once I realize that mom may not process this contact as a friendly greeting from her daughter, it’s pretty easy to modify my behavior and walk around and approach her from the front, at her level, clearly within her field of vision. It’s less likely to alarm her. Empathy—understanding another’s perspective.
During an interaction, it may be tempting to know if dad remembers my name. “Do you know who I am?” Consider dad’s reaction when I do this. Does this make dad silent, confused, frustrated, distressed? Would I want to feel any of those things? Then why create those emotions in dad? Why not keep the interaction as pleasant and stress-free as possible–“Hi, dad, it’s Laurie. It’s so great to see you today.” Empathy.
It seems that not only the Alzheimer’s unit but the whole world could also be a better place if empathy became a widespread skill we taught our children and continued to develop across our lifetimes. Not just during the events that tend to focus our attention on its critical importance, but all the time.
Remember, understanding another’s point of view is not exclusively helpful to them. It’s self-serving and helpful to us as well. We certainly benefit from less stressful, higher quality interactions with mom and dad in the examples above.
It certainly can make me a calmer driver who gets to my destination more quickly and with a lower blood pressure.
I’m not a patient driver (improvin’). I’m too frequently yelling at drivers who can’t hear me. Too often are the times when I righteously pull out of my lane to pass the “idiots” and now see the couch in the middle of the lane or the water over the road. “Now I see the reason for your driving behavior. My apologies.”
In general, our behaviors make sense to us. The teen breaking family rules, my wanting to pass the slow idiots, even terrorists holding hostages.
What if our first reaction to what we label as negative or unacceptable behavior wasn’t disapproval or judgment but was an attempt to understand? What if we evolved from “That’s wrong!” to “That’s not what I’d do. I wonder what’s motivating them to do that.”
And here’s the even tougher challenge: what if we practiced this skill with everyone.
We don’t get to be empathetic only with the people who are related to us or who look like us or who cheer for the same team—insert your chosen similarity. We must use our empathy skills when interacting with people who don’t look like us, speak like us, cheer for the same team as us or even like the same foods as us or vote for the same party as us.
I’m sorry to say that research would indicate that if your bag of groceries breaks open and scatters to the ground, I’m probably more likely to help you if you’re wearing a Cyclones t-shirt than if you’re wearing a Hawkeyes t-shirt. (I’ll make a personal effort to NOT do this and help people in Hawkeyes shirts and even the unthinkable Nebraska shirt!)
We hang with our tribe. We empathize more with our tribe, our in-group, the people we’ve decided are like us in some way.
“I help anyone who needs it,” you say. Uh-huh. Hold up a mirror and be honest. Who are you truly more likely to help? The neighbor kid with a flat tire on I-80 or a stranger with a skin color that differs from yours? An attractive 20-year old asking for $1 or a disheveled elderly homeless person? Someone with a MAGA hat or someone with a Biden hat?
Someone who is staggering as if they might be intoxicated or someone in a sharp navy suit?
Who is in your tribe and merits your empathy, and who does not?
We all want to be understood. We enjoy talking about ourselves. Have we forgotten that life is not a monologue but a dialogue?
There are not simple, easy solutions to our current situation. But I do believe that developing our empathy would be a significant move toward remembering everyone’s humanity and could be somewhat of a silver bullet always but especially in our current times. Empathy.
To quote actor and communication expert Alan Alda, “Unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening.”
We will not agree with everyone. We will not feel the same as everyone. But can we work to understand how others came to their point of view?
If we choose not to hone and use our skills in empathy, what are we missing? What are we missing when we don’t seek to understand people with whom we don’t identify an instant similarity? What enriching experiences, cultural perspectives, new ideas, friendships are passing us by?
What pain are we casually ignoring and allowing to remain in the world? What problems remain unresolved?
What’s the downside to enhanced understanding?