Mind Matters — Empathy: What Is It Anyway?

The word Empathy gets bandied about a lot these days, becoming yet another platitude. If we slap the word in a “PR” paragraph, it must mean a corporation cares. If we use it in conversation, it must mean we really own it. Well, no, on both counts.

True empathy is the unsung hero of the quotidian lives we live. What is empathy anyway? It is not to be confused with its weaker cousin sympathy. My own notion of sympathy is that it often borders on pitying another for their loss or misfortune, with maybe an unconscious tinge of “that’s sad for you, sure am glad I’m not you.” Empathy, on the other hand, takes the risk of identifying with the other’s feelings, or walking a mile in the other’s moccasins, as the adage goes.

Trouble is, we often think empathy is only meant for special cases. Instead, we should be living it in all the mundane activities we do—with our spouses, with our kids, with our friends, actually with everyone we encounter. Perhaps no one but an enlightened Buddhist master would be able to be almost flawlessly empathetic (I do believe Mr. Rogers came pretty close.) Nevertheless, we persist!

What does every day empathy look like? It means that we really listen to our children (including infants) and meet them when they are not where we want them to be. It is of the utmost selfishness for a parent to inflict their will over a child’s needs simply because that makes life easier for the parent. Empathic parenting entails sacrifice, not selfishness.

Everyday empathy is about remembering what another needs. When my spouse without any prompts from me goes out and clears all the snow off the car because he knows I have to leave for work, that is empathy, not selfishness.

When a spouse cleans the bathroom after he’s done his morning routine, that’s empathy. When a friend listens to your painful story, that’s empathy.

Empathy is the opposite of self-absorption and selfishness. It really is considering how another feels or anticipating another’s needs—from responding to an infant’s cry to clearing snow from a car. May every small act of empathy lead to another.