Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing; to “walk in their shoes” so to speak.
[Derived from Ancient Greek ???????? (empatheia, “physical affection or passion”).]
We notice a huge amount of social media commentary about this concept, including a surfeit of pithy quotes. Wikipedia, for one example, discusses empathy extensively. We’re not going to go into it in such extraordinary depth, but we hope to add some useful observations.
One observation is that whenever there is so much back and forth discussion about a concept, there tends to also be major misunderstandings about it. We’d like to add our two cents.
Besides the obvious usefulness of empathy in the general social contexts of communication and understanding with others, there is also a practical application in marketing and public relations. For example, a product or service gets empathy by tying it in to one’s public using their local environment. This makes it more acceptable and improves its reach. As a local example, many products and services in the St. Louis metropolitan area are tied in name or picture with the Gateway Arch.
Some confuse empathy with compassion or sympathy. These are closely related but definitely different. Consult any good dictionary to understand the differences. (I recommend https://onelook.com/ to look up words online.)
One of the abiding concerns of commentary on empathy is how to teach it, how to develop it in a person when it is lacking. It is really a function of a living being’s awareness.
A large part of awareness training would be learning how to confront others and situations, while being open to all perceptions and remaining unrestimulated by noise and confusion. In this context, confront means to face without flinching.
People are not naturally aware of other people; they have to be drilled on observing others in order to bring about awareness. In many cases this normally occurs during one’s upbringing; in other cases this ability to observe may be lacking to greater or lesser degree and requires training. A century of psychological “know-best” that people are animals, not spiritual beings, has blunted this ability to observe in many unfortunate cases. Thus we get so much conversation on social media about how to develop empathy for others, which basically depends upon observing and being aware of others.
At the bottom of the scale of awareness there is delusion, in which a person sees one thing but thinks it is something else. This is more prevalent than one might suspect. Observational drills may not be enough to repair this failing.
Ways to Bring About a Heightened Sense of Empathy
A sensitivity to Human Rights is one way to cultivate empathy. Some notice that teaching about Human Rights brings about changes in attitude and behavior leading to more empathy toward others.
Another way to approach this is to recognize ways in which one’s awareness is turned to unawareness, and remedy those. A prime example of creating unawareness is psychiatric drugs.
These drugs create many of their effects by modifying the expression of neurotransmitters in the brain, which we call “playing Russian Roulette with your brain.”
Common and well-documented side effects of many psychiatric drugs include hallucinations, delusions, emotional disturbance, emotional numbing, confusion, akathisia (restlessness), brain damage, forgetfulness, memory lapses, hostility, aggressive behavior, and vision problems.
One can easily see that such side effects may contribute to one’s unawareness of what is going on around them, thus bringing about a destruction of empathy. The obvious remedy is to wean off taking these drugs and find non-drug alternatives for one’s troubles.
We hope these few observations have contributed to your understanding of empathy, and lead to a resurgence of your awareness of others.