By Jacob de Figueiredo
Empathy is a beautiful thing.
If I look past my disgraceful organizational skills, my lack of any sort of maturity, the fact that when I’m driving, I can’t work a gear box and follow directions at the same time without getting completely lost and having to phone my dad for directions home when I’m genuinely just trying to drive to McDonald’s which is about 5 miles away from my house, I like to pride myself on my ability to empathize.
Now, let’s not get confused here. Empathy is very different from sympathy, which is something that people occasionally get confused about. So let’s have a quick lesson before we venture into the sticky cracks of my mind.
Empathy fuels connection.
Sympathy drives disconnection.
It’s actually pretty interesting, a woman named Theresa Wiseman studied some jobs where empathy is very relevant to their role and she derived 4 main qualities:
– Perspective taking, to recognize that someone’s perspective is their truth.
– Staying out of judgment.
– Recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that.
Empathy, is feeling with people.
So, to put this comparison into a simple analogy, empathy is seeing somebody who’s lost in a deep dark hole and cries out for help saying, “Yo, I’m stuck.” You’ll climb down into the deep dark depths of that lonely hole to meet them and say, “Hey, I know what this is like and you’re not alone.”
Now sympathy, is like poking your head over the top of that hole, looking down into the dark abyss, seeing the person who’s stuck and saying, “Aaaaa, yeah… they looks bad, really sorry… at least you didn’t hurt yourself.”
I’ve been told that any sentence with ‘At least’ in it can’t be empathetic.
I may have been a bit rash at first when I stated that I ‘pride myself on my ability to feel empathy.’ Because it’s a lot more complex than that, being empathetic requires us to not tell someone everything’s going to be ok in a lackluster attempt to make the person feel better, or to understand their emotions but you have to truly ignite something inside you that shares that feeling.
After a truly revolutionary master class with the wizard that is David Pearl, other than feeling like I’ve just been spat out of a 9-hour acid trip, I had a real and true moment of self-reflection in the power of empathy. As I wondered around the streets of Brixton with my eye’s truly open, repeating the same question over and over in my head, I stopped and looked around at the characters that were occupying the streets, characters that I’d usually scuttle past on my morning commute to school, with headphones in and my head firmly fixated on the floor in front of me.
I saw them, laughing, crying, sharing memories and experiences. I saw them interacting with each other in a way that I would have normally paid no attention to. I started asking questions.
I wonder why that woman’s selling pans, what’s her story? Who’s she providing for? Where does she live? What are her worries? Her dreams? Her hopes and ambitions for the future? Does she even care about those things? Maybe she’s just selling pans.
This carried on for the next 30 minutes of my street wisdom experience, desperately trying to dig deep and find feelings within myself that I could loosely relate to some of the emotions that I could see on the street.
Just to see if I could walk in somebody else’s shoes.
It is a reminder for, me personally, that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we’re brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.
At some level anyway.