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A Lesson in the New Empathy

Sep 10 2014
Bill Apablasa

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is, we could all use a little more empathy in our lives—both in the giving and in the receiving, or to paraphrase Paul McCartney, “the empathy you take is equal to the empathy you make.”

Like most good things in life, you can’t have something unless you give it away. Empathy is no different.

Unfortunately, empathy is one of those misunderstood words, like ‘literally’, or ‘irregardless.’ We’re not always sure what it means, or how to use it, but we literally say them irregardless.

Compassion we get. Kindness. That’s easy. But, empathy? Hmmm.

We could go to the dictionary, but when it comes to empathy, there are lots of definitions. Most of them have to do with “seeing the world as someone else sees it,” or “stepping into the shoes of another person.”

That’s all well and good. But the problem with that angle lies in the simple fact that you can’t always step into the shoes of someone else.

You can’t live someone else’s pain or walk their path.

And, for that matter, do we really want to?

If I’m losing my house to bankruptcy, I don’t want you to lose your house, anymore than the cancer patient wants you to get cancer, or the parent of a child with a rare genetic disorder wants you to experience their challenges. 

We can never really walk in someone else’s shoes. It makes for a nice bumper sticker, but in reality, a size 8 will never fit into a size 5…not without pain.

Of course, this doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?

In the name of empathy, how often does someone look at the challenges of another, clutch their chest, and mutter, “that breaks my heart,” or even worse, “oh, poor thing.”

And we all do it at one time or another.

We call it empathy, but sharing someone else’s pain and offering our pity, does nothing to make a situation better or improve their life. It only adds more misery.

Yet, that being said, our world needs empathy more than ever before. We are becoming an increasingly isolated culture, separated by our differences and prejudices, our challenges and abilities.

Empathy is the bridge that connects us back together again.

We just need a new empathy.

A bolder empathy. An empathy that empowers and unites.

An empathy that we each define and own for ourselves.

So here’s my definition: em·pa·thy (noun): an understanding of the human condition that makes us more compassionate and gentle towards the people around us.

It’s an empathy that realizes we all come into this world with our own unique challenges, each guiding us towards the experiences we need in order to create a meaningful life.

It’s an empathy that doesn’t seek to take on anyone’s pain, but allows us to fully engage and connect with the world we inhabit…to be fully present so that those around us can be understood and heard. 

It’s an empathy that treats every interaction as an opportunity to search for the common ground that unites us.

It’s an empathy that challenges prejudices and labels, while embracing inclusion and open-mindedness.

It’s an empathy that doesn’t look away from someone’s pain, or judge when someone looks or acts different.

It’s an empathy that cuts others some slack, gives the benefit of the doubt, smiles often and comes from a place of unconditional love and total acceptance.

Most of all, it’s an empathy that makes the world a better place…the only way you can…one person at a time.

What does empathy look like to you? Share in the comments below.

Bill Apablasa is a writer, filmmaker, blogger, creative director and proud evangelist for WebWise Therapy Services and their mission to help others overcome challenges…realize potential…and pursue an inspired life.