Choosing Empathy

This past Tuesday, my friend Samantha began her day with the familiar workday routine. Just as she was heading out the door, she heard screeching car tires and then a scream from the street in front of her building. Samantha hurried to the scene to find an elderly neighbor distraught and holding her injured dog, which the car could not avoid. Samantha drove the neighbor and the neighbor’s pup to the veterinarian, but there was nothing they could do and the dog passed on.

Samantha returned home with the neighbor and consoled her for the rest of the morning before heading into work for the afternoon. As you can imagine, Samantha’s boss was not pleased that she missed half of her shift. All things considered, Samantha insists that she did the right thing; she chose to care more about her neighbor’s emotional well-being at that moment, rather than centering her professional responsibilities.

Samantha’s response and action may not seem extraordinary to you. After all, who among us wouldn’t like to think that they could be just as compassionate in a neighbor’s time of need?  But, would you actually do it? To be honest, I am not absolutely sure that I would stop the progress of my day in order to help my neighbor the same way Samantha did. This story, and my initial response to the scenario, makes me wonder: What does the world need from me?

Until now I have always been rather ego-centric and ambitious when reflecting on that question. Usually, I think that the world needs me to write a Pulitzer-worthy book about assessment, or solve climate change, or run for public office to improve the political issues of our times. But, Samantha’s story helps me to see that large-scale contributions are not always the most important. Sometimes the world needs us to act empathically toward those nearest to us and in moments that we do not always chose. But, don’t just take my word for it.

Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, argues that to be empathic is to make the conscious individual choice to “feel with other people.” To be empathic is to listen and consider another person’s perspective. Being empathic does not mean that you associate your experience with another’s experience or that you offer a solution to their problem. In fact, Professor Brown tells us, “A response can rarely make something better. What makes something better is connection.” To truly connect we must open ourselves to the vulnerability inherent to empathic behavior.

Loyola Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, J.D. Trout, in The Empathy Gap, puts it this way: “It is hard to achieve genuine understanding of other’s hardships while studying from a distance…. imagining that we are walking in another person’s shoes is voyeurism, not empathy.” Thus, to be truly empathic we must negotiate between two instincts, to protect our own interests on one hand and to act communally on the other. Valuing the perspectives of others and incorporating the collective good into our own behaviors can help us to improve the world in incremental ways that resonate beyond ourselves.

Samantha’s story demonstrates a clear choice to act with empathy and care for her community and the world around her. Let Samantha’s example motivate us all to recognize the incidental ways in which we can help others in their time of need and change the world, if only for a morning.