‘Empathy’ has made me think of a few different things: relationships; racism; stereotypes; prejudice; ignorance; society; mortality; guilt; class; gender… The list seems endless.
“You seem void of any empathy whatsoever.”
So this line has been thrown at me in moments of anger in the midst of long-past heated arguments. Some alcohol might have been involved too. Do you think it’s possible to forget to consider an issue from someone else’s perspective because you’re caught up in the midst of other feelings such as jealousy, rejection and miscomprehension? For a start, it’s definitely difficult to have a sensible debate with someone who is intoxicated and seems intent on an argument that seems grounded in a desire to tear the sober party to shreds. But, it does make you question your response and whether you have done wrong and so do try to empathise, even when it’s the most irrational and destructive idea. What else is most upsetting about this, is that the accuser might sometimes forget the content of their words the day after, so the initial tear-trimmed time spent agonising over your supposed lack of empathy turns out to have been futile and fictional, leading to confusion and self-doubt. Alcoholic gaslighting, I might call it. According to Al-Anon, in situations like this, it’s best to ignore the goading bait and walk away. It’s also hard to empathise with the individual who’s able to maintain such calm and ignore this behaviour consistently. I learnt it was best to be asleep. Avoid trying to empathise with someone who was that drunk, they couldn’t remember their words… so why should you, right? Or does that make the enabler cruel? See? Empathy is not useful in this case. What’s the point of trying to rationalise or empathise with addiction or dependence, if they’re anything different, unless you are an addict yourself?
“It’s a bit like being teased for having spots.”
I was born with white privilege: blonde hair and blue eyes. Racists expect complicity and I will never understand how it feels to be called a name because I was born a darker shade. I do empathise, with full recognition and shame, with my past thirteen year-old self who watched a friend being punched for being brown and I stood by and did nothing; also, when my darker skinned sister was pulled along by her dark brown hair and called names. My heart aches when my daughter is asked where she is from and called a gypsy because she has inherited her grandfather’s slighter darker Asian shade. I also feel vitriolic anger when my brown friend tells of being eyed suspiciously when accompanied by her blonde-haired pale skinned daughter, just in case she had kidnapped her and it was implied by the onlooker her daughter could be that girl who went missing on a family holiday in Portugal. I do understand what it feels like to have egg thrown at your house because your neighbours are Slovakian and the children’s enemies from their school decided to shout racist abuse and hurl things at their home. But, can I fully empathise? No… and I shall never try to. Empathy doesn’t really work there either.
“Knowledge is power”
Apparently… So why is there so much bias in our westernised, canonical society? How can two people with the same qualifications be statistically less likely to succeed in certain professions, or indeed even be given a chance to begin? I haven’t got a statistic to hand and I’m sure some of you might be quick to throw a stone for that, but I will offer the anecdotes of a partner who was able to gain many more job interviews with the surname of his white Anglo-Saxon stepfather, rather than that of his Asian father. I can empathise with the ignorance of the perpetrators of this systemic racism that has driven individuals to change their birth name, or even lifestyles and wardrobes, such is my genetic make-up and upbringing…. And YET, I will not agree with their sentiment and I find it increasingly difficult to sympathise with the lack of desire to seek to understand and learn about cultures different from their own. How can such blinding arrogance inspire empathy unless you are within that realm of blissful ignorance? Maybe if I think of it as fear of the unknown, empathy will be easier. Open your mind and learn…
“Never judge someone’s decisions until you have walked a hundred miles in their shoes.”
Until you really know what another’s life and experiences are like I am not sure that our true understanding can ever be without a marginal degree of prejudice, however unintended and we can never truly know the thoughts of another. In fact, whilst I’m aware this could make me seem arrogant, sometimes I find empathy can be debilitating because thoughts of someone else’s experience can completely flood my mind; the multiple imaginings of what somebody is experiencing can become overwhelming. How can we ever truly know the intricacies of another’s mind? Also, I question, do we empathise when it is most needed and when you are dealing with someone in the moment, or does it occur after an event, as a reflection. It is certain that quick thinking helps, especially when dealing with students we teach in school. Empathy is of immense importance when we build relationships to help others to learn.
Finally, I hope you can empathise and appreciate I could have written, probably anecdotally, about some of the other issues I mentioned at the start, but writing this has certainly made me consider how, when and to what extent we employ vital empathy skills in both our personal and professional lives.