Over the course of last semester, I wrote five columns about empathy — this one you’re reading now is my sixth and final one. I’ve written about empathy in the context of my Montessori elementary school; I’ve written about it in the context of Americanized yoga; I’ve gone into a somewhat philosophical debate about whether empathy and justice can coexist with one another; I’ve discussed empathy in the context of sexual and gender-based violence and I’ve told a personal anecdote about how self-absorption has prevented me from empathizing with others.
Others have written about empathy from a variety of angles, approaching it with philosophical, psychological and creative nonfiction lenses. The writer Leslie Jamison approached empathy through writing autobiographical, creative-nonfiction essays in her award-winning collection, “The Empathy Exams,” which has been circulating throughout my fellow book-loving friend circles since it was first published in 2014.
These examples reveal some of the varied ways one can conceptualize empathy. While all of these disciplines — philosophy, psychology and creative writing — are in some ways very different from one another, they have at least one thing in common: They get into the nitty-gritty, gnarled intellectual and emotional roots of what empathy is. And sometimes, their findings ask the question of whether empathy, feeling what somebody else feels, is even possible.
While I think all of the examples I mentioned are honorable intellectual explorations, they can make the pursuit of empathy seem like a daunting endeavor, and therefore inaccessible. When I see a 240-page book with the title “Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters,” it makes me think I need to know more in order to truly understand what empathy is. It leads me to believe I should be thinking about empathy in a more critical way, that maybe there’s more to it than just “stepping into someone else’s shoes,” and that I should be wary of my apparent ignorance on the topic.
Sometimes writing a lot of words about something can make it seem more accessible to people, and sometimes it can have the opposite effect. This is something I’ve spent a while thinking about since I’ve written a collective five columns on empathy this semester in efforts to spur self-reflection in those who read my writing.
I admit some of the arguments that empathy is actually impossible are compelling. I find the argument that it’s impossible to know anything at all compelling, too. Our perceptions of reality are entirely subjective, differing from person to person, so objective truth is a myth. But this doesn’t mean scientists should stop conducting experiments, or else we’d still be dealing with the bubonic plague.
I don’t think it matters if empathy is “ultimately” possible or not. Like striving to find out what’s scientifically “true,” I think striving to empathize is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor. Moving toward a more empathetic existence means people step outside themselves, and take on a more collective mentality, increasing the likelihood that individuals act selflessly rather than selfishly. While I admire the work of philosophers, psychologists, writers and other specialists who’ve studied empathy, I think it’s vital that intellectualized versions of empathy can coexist with a stripped-down version of empathy that’s accessible to everyone, not just the bookish.
Empathy, in the most basic sense, is feeling what someone else feels. It’s taking a walk in their shoes. It’s something that happens in the brain that can lead to empathetic actions. It takes the “golden rule,” “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” one step further. The empathetic “golden rule” is, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
Determining how someone else wants to be treated can be easy and it can sometimes be hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “thank you” with a smile when a barista hands out my coffee. Empathetic action can be a little tougher when someone doesn’t want what I think they want.
I may think someone walking several yards behind me, exiting the Union, wants me to hold the door open for them to walk outside. But they’re kind of far away and they don’t want to “make” me hold the door for too long. They go from walking to a sort of trot, and the expression on their face is a mixture of guilt and embarrassment — for making me hold the door for too long, on the one hand, and for having to do this awkward jog thing, on the other. They might have preferred I never held the door open in the first place.
Practicing empathy can be complicated. But I think arbitrary debates on the definition of empathy and whether it’s actually possible can distract us from the points that actually matter. Empathy is something anyone and everyone can practice, and that it’s worth striving for, even if it’s not ultimately possible. At its best, empathy can be an incredibly powerful tool for justice, leading to a more democratic society where everyone tries, in earnest, to understand where each other is coming from.