Realigning All the Empathy

Aponte, Nariño, Colombia

These days, everyone seems to be talking about empathy–how to feel more of it, what to do with it, and why it will make America united again.

While empathetic declarations come from a well-intentioned place, there is a slight flaw in our current empathetic effusiveness; the overuse and often misuse of the word is diluting what it means.

Empathy is what you feel when you know what someone else is going through because you have gone through it too. In contrast, sympathy is what you feel when you do not know what someone else is going through—because you haven’t personally experienced the same thing—but you still want to show that you care.

I can empathize with women who are disrespected in the workplace because I know what it’s like to fight to be taken seriously as a professional. However, I will never be able to empathize with someone who has lost a sibling because I am an only child. I have never had a sibling; therefore, I cannot tell someone I know what they are going through as they cope with the loss of a brother or a sister. I can offer sympathy and support but I would never pretend that I knew what that was like.

Appropriate sympathy is powerful while false empathy comes across as pity in disguise, which then reads as condescending and dishonest. I learned this as a teacher. I will never know what it is like to grow up as a black male teenager in New York and if I had tried to tell male non-white students that I got it and I knew what they were going through they would have told me I was full of shit and they would have been right.

Instead, I experimented with sympathy, not the gushy greeting card kind, but the kind that starts with open listening, and then got to a point where empathy was possible. The conversations I had with students from backgrounds totally different from my own included me saying things like, “that is horrible and unfair and I see that you’re upset and hurt and that someone mistreated you and I can’t imagine what that was like.” The more students shared, the more I found small things that I could empathize with. The building never fixed the heat and so you’re sitting in front of an open oven to warm up? Been there. Your shady boss stiffed you on a paycheck? I feel you. Stuck underground on a rerouted train because of a station investigation and missed a major family function? Yep. Punished by an administrator for calling her out on her inconsistencies? Do I ever know what that’s like.

Different sets of experiences can often yield the same feelings. While my students and I came of age in different realities, we both experienced the moments of indignation inevitable to growing up and the frustrations of living in a city whose systems do not care how they impact individuals.

If I had opened with fake empathy and pretended I knew what their lives were like when really I had no idea, I probably would have missed all the things I really could identify with. I also would have missed all the things I couldn’t, like watching one girl slice another’s wrist off with a machete in a gang fight, seeing a neighbor commit suicide by flinging himself off the top of the building, coming home to find an overdosed parent unconscious on the floor, or being stopped and frisked. No one wants to empathize with those things. Because I don’t know what those traumatic experiences are like I would remind students that they are strong, competent, and that overwhelmingly troubling things from the past don’t have to define the future. I made those statements honestly and students received them honestly.

One of the hardest parts of teaching was not hearing students talk about impossibly difficult experiences, but in hearing students conclude by saying, “I’ve never had a teacher listen to me before,” or “at my other schools they didn’t care what had happened they just told me I would never amount to anything and shouldn’t even try,” or “they would try to act like they knew me and say ‘you just young and think you can do what you want’ and never bothered to ask why I stopped coming to class.” I initially tried to be a strict teacher who didn’t comprise on demanding the same rigorous work of all students, only to learn that the devastating common denominator of students who have been unsuccessful in traditional classrooms is that no one in their educational environments ever showed enough sympathy to say, “maybe this kid is going through something I just don’t understand.”

Systems are not sympathetic but people can be. The educational system of New York State does not care why credits were earned or missed, why classes were attended or skipped. Its values are the binary credit-have or credit-have-not.

Working with students who had been ostracized by the public education system gave me a chance to learn all the individual whys behind the missed credits and skipped classes, to listen to what it was like to live with different skin, in different neighborhoods, with different money and different backgrounds. I didn’t just learn about violence and hard times. I learned new ways to look at the world, new values, new rules, and experienced new food, music, clothes, books, movies, and languages, all of which became part of my life as I also shared the things I knew about that students had never heard of.

Since November, there has been a constant stream of calls for getting out there and empathizing with the other. The response to the burning question “what happened?” that plagued everyone who was convinced that Hillary would win was, “we need more empathy.” This is funny, because if people asking that question and offering that answer knew what it was like to live in rural America or someplace off-road of the coasts then they would have already known why Trump sounded like a godsend.

Empathy is expensive. If you know what something is like it’s because you have paid for it too. To understand how it feels to be unemployed, homeless, or addicted to drugs we have to have been unemployed, homeless, or addicted to drugs. I don’t know that those advocating most loudly for empathy also actively want to fork over their comforts, but earning the capacity to identify with suffering is not an armchair activity.

Coffee is in danger of falling victim to a similar empathy trap that is ensnaring much of intelligent, well-meaning America. Sometimes, those of us who live in consuming countries are tempted to empathize with producers’ hardships as we advocate for paying them more. I will always argue in favor of just compensation, but the tenets of that argument can be strong without inserting inflated layers of empathy. Even after I dedicated a year of my own time and money to living in producing countries and on farms to try to understand more about what it’s like to grow coffee, I still cannot empathize with an agriculturally dependent lifestyle. I got closer, close enough to ask better questions and to make more meaningful observations, but I still don’t know what it’s like.

Claiming empathy for things we have no way of ever knowing eliminates the chance to find out what it’s like to live other kinds of lives, to start to imagine what life feels like, for example, when embedded privileges taken for granted are replaced with obstacles distributed with bias.

The zoom in is only helpful with the context of the zoom out.

Instead, observing, asking questions, listening to the answers, and being willing to be wrong and amend our opinions and conclusions gets us closer. Our inclination towards empathy should be realigned to something slower. Instead of shouting, “I get you!” after five minutes, we can take our desire to understand other experiences by opening with, “I don’t know what it’s like to do what you do, but I would like to learn.” This process is also uncomfortable because it means voluntarily entering a conversation where we will have no idea what’s going on. There is a lot around us that can offer instant gratification, but identifying with people with different jobs, incomes, resources, values, religions, histories, heritages, communities, skills, hobbies, and families is not one of them.

The urgency is inspiring, but building empathy takes time. I hope that patience and resilience can build real understanding so that the intellectual reasoning used to arrive at naming empathy as a solution can evolve into genuine feeling, where more of us can look at each other and say, “I get where you’re coming from,” and mean it.


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