I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can make the world a better place, and the solution that I keep coming to is compassion. I truly believe that if we all would practice a little more compassion in our daily lives, we’d solve a lot of problems. That’s why I write about it so often here. That’s why I created my mantra, “People are people.”
Even though we‘re each born with the capacity for compassion and even some of the basic impulses towards it, we’re also each innately selfish. As we grow and navigate the world, our experiences lead us in different directions. Some move towards compassion; others shy away from it.
No matter where we find ourselves, we can all do better. We each face things that stand between us and true, heartfelt care for our fellow human beings. And so, I think it’s worthwhile from time to time for us to go back to the basics. If compassion is our goal—and I hope it is—then making sure we have a clear understanding of it is an important step.
This week, I want to look at the root of compassion: empathy. What is it, where does it come from, and why does it matter? Let’s jump in.
What is empathy?
Each of us experiences the world differently. No two people have the exact same experiences, opinions, goals, or habits. We may think that our way of being in the world is the “normal” or “right” way, but the truth is that every person’s worldview is as unique as any other. No single one is normative.
But as we go about experiencing the world, chasing our dreams, and processing what happens to us, we forget this truth. We tend to fall into an intellectual rut, uncritically accepting our own worldview as the only one that matters. We see the world the way we see it, and that’s that. End of story.
This is the opposite of compassion, and it leads down some very dark and dangerous roads. Which is why we need empathy.
Empathy is the choice to set one’s own worldview aside temporarily and to instead see the world from the point of view of another. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” That’s empathy. It’s imagining the world as they see it, taking on their memories, beliefs, vocabulary, preconceived notions, and—most importantly—their emotions and experiencing them as if they were your own.
In my research for this article, I came across a documentary entitled Empathy: The Heart’s Intelligence. While I haven’t had a chance to watch the film, yet I was captured by the title. It’s an excellent way of summing up what empathy is: combining one’s heart with one’s intellect to gain a richer view of the world.
Sounds simple enough, right? If only it were so. While empathy may not be so difficult to define, actually engaging in it is a different story.
Empathy is a skill.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where empathy was a high priority. I have many role models, but my mother especially has always been a shining example of empathy in my life. From an early age, she taught me to consider the world and my own actions from the viewpoints of others, starting with my family members and eventually extending to my friends, neighbors, and just people in general. When I learned skills like decision-making and conflict resolution, empathy was the foundation upon which they were built.
It’s laughably ironic in hindsight, but for many years, I erroneously assumed that everyone else had the same foundational understanding of empathy that I did. It was such a basic part of my own mental processing that I thought it must be human nature. In my mind, empathetic responses to others were the norm, while selfish responses were the outlier, an opposition to instinct. I naively expected other people to act empathetically towards each other, the same way I was taught to.
Alas, ignorance may be bliss, but it does not last forever. As I got older and experienced more of the world, I realized that more often than not, people stick to their own perspectives when making decisions. They don’t stray too far from their own worldviews. I was horrified to see this behavior in others, but I was utterly devastated when I came to see it in myself. I, too, have that selfish nature within me. Contrary to my early misconceptions, no one is empathetic by default.
Empathy is not an instinct that we are born with; it’s a skill that we must learn. When I realized this fact, it completely changed my understanding of human nature. And it inspired me to do the work I’m doing now of teaching people about empathy and compassion.
In my college Developmental Psychology class, we learned about the ways that the human brain changes as we grow into adults. One way of tracking a child’s development is by testing them for a cognitive skill called perspective-taking. Researchers do so by placing children on opposite sides of a table full of props and asking each of them to describe what they see and then to describe what they think the other child sees.
When they are young, kids can’t understand that people experience the world in different ways. They think that others see, hear, and feel exactly what they do, and they tell researchers that when they’re tested for perspective-taking. They’ll say, “I see a red ball in front of an orange square, and Billy sees a red ball in front of an orange square.” (That’s also why they yell, “You can’t see me!” when they cover themselves with a blanket.) It just doesn’t occur to them that things might appear differently from the other side of the table.
Of course, kids learn as they grow that everyone doesn’t see the world the same way. They learn this through experience, through disagreement with fellow children, and hopefully through caring guidance from parents and teachers. Eventually, we all learn to accept that other people have different points of view. But I wonder if most of us stop there.
The gap between basic perspective-taking to true, deep empathy is huge, and it takes a lot of effort, education, and experience to get there. Empathy is a skill, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it means you can get better at it; it’s bad because it means that you have to work in order to do so.
Many of us haven’t done the work to get good at showing empathy to others. No one has done enough. We all need to do better. And the good news is that we can.
Empathy is a practice.
Every skill has a certain amount of value, but I’d argue that empathy is among the most valuable skills one can have. While skills like carpentry, teaching, and writing can be used in a variety of scenarios to solve a multitude of problems, none of them can be used everywhere by everyone to help with every problem. Empathy, on the other hand, is literally always useful, and there is no limit on who can practice it. Everyone everywhere in every situation can and should benefit from engaging in empathy.
And that’s why I call it a practice. It is something that we need to be doing every day in every situation we find ourselves in. And as we do so, we‘ll find ourselves becoming better and better at it. That’s one of the benefits of practicing, right?
It’s like any other habit. It starts off difficult and unnatural. We have to remind ourselves to practice it, maybe by writing it on our hand or setting our phones to send us alerts. But over time, as we form a rhythm of practicing empathy in our everyday actions and conversations, it becomes easier and more natural, until eventually, it becomes a part of us.
This skill that we begin to learn as children can—if we want it to—become a decision that we make every day. And over time, those decisions will become habits. And those habits will become personality traits that form our identities.
If you want to be a more empathetic person, it starts with the simple decision to imagine the world from another person’s perspective. And then you practice that over and over until you get so good at it, it becomes a part of you! That’s the path to empathy.
What does getting good at empathy require? Well, it requires several things—things that may seem unnatural and counterintuitive to us. But when we choose to practice them, we see over time that they actually help us become better people and make better decisions.
These are a few things that you’re going to have to practice if you want to get good at empathy:
recognizing and respecting the full personhood of others
openness to new ideas
putting aside preconceived notions
learning new vocabulary/re-learning words
willingness to admit you might be wrong
allowing the experiences of others to affect you emotionally
getting comfortable with nuance and ambiguity
Learning any new skill and putting it into practice isn’t easy, and empathy is one of the most difficult skills of all. But it’s also one of the most rewarding. It is well worth the effort, I can assure you. I hope we’ll each put in the work to make it happen.
Empathy is the beginning of compassion.
Of course, empathy is just a start. We’ve spent this entire article discussing the realm of the mind, which is extremely important. But empathy’s true value doesn’t show until it’s put into practice through compassionate acts. When you choose to open your heart and allow it to be affected by the experiences of others, how could that not have an impact on how you live your life?
What those actions look like will vary by person and circumstance. Maybe it’s giving someone in need a little bit of money. Maybe it’s starting a shelter to give struggling people a place to stay as they seek to improve their lives. Maybe it’s battling head-on the systems that create poverty and oppression in the first place. Or maybe it’s something completely different. Only you can know what your calling is, but a key component of it will always be compassion.
I believe that compassion can save the world from the trouble it’s in and solve our most dire problems. But compassion is in short supply these days, and if we’re going to make more of it, we have to start somewhere. That starting point is empathy, a skill we each need to be practicing every day.
I’ve laid out here how to do just that. Will you join me in my commitment to practicing empathy towards others each and every day? If you do, I can promise that it will change your life and provide you opportunity to make the world a better place. So let’s commit together to practicing empathy for the good of the world.