We need more empathy

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A friend wrote about her experience in hearing that a local teen had gone missing. 

Instead of hearing about it and shaking her head—as most of us do most of the time—she thought about what the teen’s parents and family and friends must be feeling, how distraught they must be.

Reading her experience of this stranger’s experience got me to thinking about empathy, and how we deeply lack it on a societal level. “It’s not important until it happens to me” sometimes feels like a national pastime.

The thing is… the “societal level” is made up of us, of individuals.

“Every snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.”

What if we took a little bit more time to consider the lives and paths and experiences of other people? 

We can’t do it with all of the people all of the time. We’d be exhausted and unable to function.

I remember reading about this problem with donations when there’s a natural disaster. People share their old, dirty, in-disrepair things. Clothes with holes or stains. Games and puzzles with pieces missing. Broken dishes. 

“It’s better than nothing!” 

Really? Really? 

For just a minute or two, imagine you’re in that position. You’ve lost everything you own. You might have lost family or friends or pets. You might not know yet if you’ve lost people you care about—still waiting to hear. You’re living in a sports arena or school cafeteria with your six-year-old. Someone brings you a change of clothes. Finally! A change of clothes! It’s been many days in these clothes. 

And the new clothes have holes in them. Not the trendy kind of holes. There’s a stain on the shirt.

Does it still feel good to have a change of clothes?

They brought a game for your kid. She lights up until she tries to play it and finds intergral pieces missing.

Sadness for the girl and for the parent. Sadness that could have been avoided with a little bit of empathy.

Clothes that don’t fit right or I just don’t really like? Great! Clothes that I don’t wear because they’re not in wearable condition? Not great!

Games and toys that we’ve outgrown but still work exactly as intended? Great! Anything less than that? Not great! (There are artists who use pieces of games for artwork. If you don’t want to throw it away, see about that sort of donation instead of donating to someone who wants to use it as it’s meant to be and can’t.)

How do we get people to let themselves feel the feelings and have some empathy, even if it’s just enough to be baseline helpful to others? A lot of the time, people are pretending to help others just to make themselves feel better.

It’s not about you.

Hear someone else’s story and sit in the discomfort instead of trying to make yourself feel better.

(This is why people who are grieving and people with terminal or potentially-terminal illnesses often lack support—because the people around them are trying to make themselves feel better instead of tending to the grieving or the sick.)

How can we get more people to sit with it instead of just moving on? Not with this, specifically, but with any of it? Not all of it—all is too much—but any?

I don’t have an answer.

Can you do it? Sit with someone else’s discomfort? If yes, how did you learn? If not, how can you start?

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