Of all the possible topics, this is the one I am the most excited to write about. Empathy is where the idea for this blog originated, and eventually I expanded it into the areas of honesty and connection. It’s a subject I’ve spent most of my life exploring, and I believe this is an idea of great importance in our current age of technology and communication.
Today we have advantages never seen before in humanity’s brief existence in the universe; we have our lessons of history to learn from and the technology to instantly connect people across the globe. Information is at our fingertips wherever there is an internet connection, and people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds mingle and interact on a scale never before seen. When we meet someone from another place or country, we have to opportunity to learn about their views and culture and broaden our own perspectives.
Yet this also causes conflicts as these people and experiences are unfamiliar to us. All too often ignorance and unfamiliarity lead to discomfort. Discomfort can turn into distrust and anger, and soon after, one group starts discriminating against the other. The “enemy”, painted with a single-story, has their humanity is stripped from them; they are seen as less than: beastly savages and heathens that must be forcibly reformed or removed for the greater good, and violence is seen as the only solution.
It is interesting to note that no one goes to war believing they are on the wrong side. Each side fights with the confidence that theirs is the moral, divine cause and that the enemy is an irredeemable evil that must be eradicated. As revolting as it may appear, the Nazis were one such group. Several factors led to their rise to power as the Nationalist Social German Worker’s Party, but the end result was the dehumanization of various minorities and one of the most brutal, systematic purges in all of recorded history. Sadly enough, their story is not unique, as we see this same story of dehumanization played out again and again with different characters. I do not mean to diminish the loss from such a tragedy, only to note that widespread massacres happen any time people are dehumanized and human life is cheapened. Even to this day, wars continue to be fought over various resources, ideals, and religions, and people all over Earth suffer. If there are enough resources to sustain Earth’s billions, why do we so often resort to violence?
At our heart, I believe we are all the same. I think most people will naturally agree with this—if you’ve read this far, you likely have a high degree of empathy—but I’d like to invite everyone to consider the following: all human beings are the same. Sure, we come in with different features, sizes, and skin tones; but our minds, the part that makes us human beings, are no different from each other. We all are born into this world, with no choice of how and when we came into it. And so we (hopefully) mature as we live through the ups and downs of life. We all experience the same emotions of anger, sadness, and joy. We all have precious things that we want to protect, and deep down, I think we all believe in fairness, whether it’s a conscious or subconscious driver.
As we experience life, we develop our own sense of right and wrong and get upset when others trample over the rules we use to make sense of the world. Like when a driver cuts us off on the road or we see someone get bullied, it violates our principles of right and wrong. We feel anger and the desire to right that wrong in our internal world, usually by imagining some sort of accident or karmic justice to be wrought upon the offender. Even someone who grows up completely self-centered believes that is what everyone does because that is simply how the world works, so why shouldn’t they do the same? In the end, they are only doing what they believe is fair or right for themselves. So if we all start from the same place and have the same motivational drivers, why is it so hard for one person to understand another?
It is because of our self-centered natures. From the moment we are born, we are only conscious of our little world. As babies, we cry when we are hungry or startled. We cry when we poop ourselves and need a cleaning. It’s all about what we want because we cannot yet comprehend what others feel and think. As a person matures, we become more and more aware and learn how to interact with others, but this self-centered perspective never fully leaves us because that is the nature of our identities. We perceive the world through our senses; we see through our eyes. From our perspectives, we are the center of our universe. This stays true no matter who you are, even if that’s Gandhi reincarnated. (Note that I use the term “self-centered” to mean a natural state of perspective rather than someone who is entirely preoccupied with their own affairs.)
Yet we all are obviously able to look beyond ourselves as the capacity for empathy resides in each and every one of us. There have been many famous people in history who made their mark as revolutionary leaders for their time (Gandhi, Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., as well as other figures outside of the Western world, sorry I’m ignorant), and it is no coincidence they all espoused non-violence and empathy as the solution to the problems they faced. But even though we learn of their lessons and praise their actions, it is much harder to internalize and practice them ourselves. It’s painful and difficult to challenge popular conventions or imagine who could be hurt by our selfish or thoughtless actions. But these are all questions we must eventually face: what kind of person do you want to be? When you see suffering, will you turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not there? Will you think about the empathy in your life, when it was received or where it should have been? Maybe there are some bitter memories, but someone has to start it. So try to understand where your parents and friends are coming from; try to empathize with your coworkers or neighbors and give them your attention when you are with them. Because even if you have been wronged before, someone has to believe in a better world and act to change what’s around them. It’s uncomfortable to think about people in suffering; it hurts to feel other people’s pain. But that is the only way we will ever truly understand each other, and those around you will love you for it.
I dream of a world. A world where people look at others who appear different and yet know they are the same. A world where people value life and integrity over status and power. A world where people help others as they would want to be helped. A world of empathy.