Empathy is not agreeing with someone else.
Empathy is not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and then agreeing that yes, if you were in their shoes, you would do what they do and think what they think.
Empathy is not seeing the world with your eyes from where someone else is standing, it’s seeing the world with their eyes, from their perspective, coloured with their hopes and fears, their life experience.
Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and then overcoming your own thoughts of what you would do in their shoes and imagining what it feels like to be them in their shoes.
If a friend is in an abusive relationship but says “But I love X and I’m loyal to X” (for any X including a lover, drug, or company), empathy is absolutely, positively not thinking of this situation from the perspective of someone who thinks X is a complete wank-fest.
Empathy is opening your mind and heart and feeling what it’s like to be so hopelessly in love that you turn a blind eye to the abuse you’re suffering, or accept it as your fault, or whatever it is that your friend is actually feeling that you would never, ever feel in a million years.
Empathy only really matters when you disagree with someone. Empathy only really matters when you’re different from someone. Empathy is when you have ford a raging torrent, scale a hazardous peak, and then walk through a forest-fire to overcome your feelings of dissonance to feel what someone else is feeling. That’s when one soul reaches out to touch another, as opposed to having been adjacent all along.
I struggle with this. I have a hard time feeling empathy for racists and gun-lovers. I have to try to imagine, for example, living in a city where I feel fear for myself and my family. I have to suppress my own socially progressive reactions and open up the very small corner of my soul that wants to battle every demon.
I have to unchain the monster that wants to tar an entire race of people with the same brush. I have to imagine what it feels like to read of an incident in the newspaper involving a black person and a white person and immediately think the worst of the black person.
But I try. These people are people. They have hopes and fears. They have families. They have souls. They dance to music and feel pride in their heritage that isn’t always a negative hateful thing. I don’t get to talk about the wonder of humanity and stick an asterisk on there and put in the fine print, “except for racists.”
Empathy is very hard for me when I have a really fundamental knee-jerk negative reaction to someone else’s beliefs and choices, when I believe they are undermining everything that is good in my world. But… That’s when it matters the most to nurture it, because that is the only way to really connect to another person, another soul.
No positive progress comes from the politics and emotions of “Us vs. Them.” And empathy is the true road to there only being an “us.” It is hard for me, very hard. But empathy is one of my values.