Archive for November 22nd, 2021

In Matters of Empathy

Empathy smybol

The Universal Symbol for Empathy

Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.

― George Washington Carver

Let’s continue this Thanksgiving week’s stream of virtues with a biggie: empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes or see through their eyes. To feel their emotions, to try to perceive the circumstances of their life.

As Walt Whitman put it in the immortal Song of Myself, describing his time as a hospital aide during the Civil War when he nursed severely wounded Union soldiers:

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.

It seems like a simple thing, a natural reaction for most decent people. But it is, unfortunately, becoming a more and more scarce entity. It sometimes feels like there is a total absence of empathy in this world with some folks. Or maybe it’s that they have managed to lop their empathy into smaller bits, reserving it only for people who look and speak and think like themselves.

Empathy is sometimes even mocked these days, derided as a symptom of weakness or softness, something to be exploited. My persona view on this is that empathy is actually a strength, something that allows you to feel compassion with those in need while at the same time giving you the ability to understand and perhaps predict how your adversaries might act.

In this case, a lack of empathy is actually a hinderance to those with less than honorable intentions.This thought takes me back to the words of Gustav Gilbert who was the psychologist at Spandau Prison where the Nazi war crimes defendants were held in 1945:

I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.

Conversely, goodness would include the presence of empathy.

Most of you out there reading this are empathetic folks. If not, you most likely wouldn’t have read this far or be following this blog. So, this is just preaching to the choir. But can you make others feel empathy or, at least, more empathetic to a wider range of others?

I would guess that this can only occur through a willingness to display your own empathy with patience and grace. Much like the words of advice at the top from George Washington Carver.

Do I know this for sure?

No. But who or what can it hurt?

It can only help in some way or another. Try it…

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