We live in a culture that champions the notion of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Yet, as it turns out, we’ve been walking in our own shoes all along.
Many use empathy, pity, sympathy, and compassion as seemingly interchangeable terms. Yet there is something that distinguishes the man who simply offers a practical solution to a stressed loved one from the man who intently sits with the struggling individual and strives to understand them through interpersonal dialogue.
Of these four emotional states, empathy seems to be the one that modernity applauds the most. Yet, does this newfound contender for the crown of ethical interaction pave a path to a psychologically stable utopia? Or perhaps societal convention misinterprets the essence of empathy and often confuses empathy with sympathy. A true understanding of empathy is key not only for the preservation of our own personal relationships but for the health of society as a whole.
Empathy is conventionally defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Often, institutions implement this definition of empathy and purport it as a call sign to establish unity. The American Psychological Association asserts that empathy is paramount in facilitating a culture of cooperation and tolerance. Yet, it would seem as though encountering an individual who meets the definitional criteria of empathy is profoundly scarce in the hustle and bustle of daily life.
What does Empathy Mean?
Many people may feel as though they understand empathy, but there is empathy, then there is empathy. True empathy is not the experiencing of others’ emotions for the sake of oneself but rather experiencing others’ emotions for the sake of the other person’s well-being.
To genuinely empathize is to enter into the other’s emotional world without bias. An example of genuine empathy is the mother’s intuitive knowledge of her child’s struggles or a friend being genuinely distraught over another friend’s breakup. However, if either of these examples occurs because the mother or the friend is only recalling their own prior experience of the respective scenarios, they are not genuinely empathizing but rather sympathizing.
Empathy Versus Sympathy
Empathy is understanding; sympathy is sharing. This fundamental distinction is crucial in understanding the legitimate definition of empathy. It doesn’t take a peer-reviewed psychological study to observe that most individuals inherently lack understanding of others. Like Orwellian sheep from Animal Farm, myriad groups organize under a proverbial flag of empathy and seem to advocate for unconditional solidarity and a common cause but are void of genuine understanding.
A plethora of causes may be the culprit for this emotionally dishonest climate. Perhaps culture, media, politics, or social dynamics contribute to the climate, but what can be known is that people seem to fail at seeing others beyond what immediately applies to themselves. Genuine understanding only goes so far as the lived experience of the individual attempting to understand another rather than trying to view another person as a human being in themselves. In that, if someone only views others as objects or as a means to an end, they are not capable of empathy. A common or similar experience can connect people and deepen understanding of one another. Still, at some point, one must turn from reflecting on his own experiences to seeing the essence of the other person to reveal genuine empathy.
To clarify, the point is not that sympathy in itself is a problematic way of emotionally relating to others. Rather, the issue lies in the fact that people often sympathize while simultaneously claiming to be acting empathetically, which perhaps could be the culprit in the widespread misunderstanding among everyday individuals.
How to Think Clearly with Empathy
Although a universally consistent definition of empathy may be hard to find, philosopher Edith Stein proposed a particularly compelling approach to empathy, one that views others through a lens that prioritizes their well-being and inherent goodness.
Stein believed that the way we encounter objects within the world is not the same as the way in which we encounter humans. For example, when viewing a table, most people immediately project utility onto it; a table is for eating. Contrarily, when viewing a person, projecting utility onto them could be ethically problematic. Rather, humans deserve to be respected for their own sake and not used merely for utility.
Edith Stein agreed that empathy was a key solution to the polarizing nature of our time. Yet, her understanding of empathy differed from the conventional understanding. She understood empathy to be a “seeing” of the other person in accordance with their essential individuality and dignity. Through recognizing an individual’s dignity, one could theoretically view another selflessly, ultimately coming to genuinely understand others by virtue of the shared humanity between us all, which transcends one's own subjective experience. That is to say, our subjective experience would not be a primary factor, but rather, we would be attempting to understand another's emotions and perceptions entirely for the dignity of their human existence, not for the sake of any movement or ideologically fueled motive.
These distinctions may come off as abstract and inconsequential ramblings, but I challenge you to look a little closer. Consider the invitation: Anytime you interact with another person, it is an opportunity to go outside of yourself to see a person as a person. Whether they be a co-worker, family member, friend, or romantic partner, each represents a unique opportunity to truly understand their personhood, not for your sake, but for theirs. Ask yourself, if this person has inherent dignity, what are they owed, and how can I understand them?
Empathy is a unifying force, one which, if properly applied, creates relationships predicated upon care for another rather than utility. So, before you comfort a friend, let out a retort at an infuriating co-worker, reprimand a child, or fight with a partner, ask yourself, am I truly seeing and understanding the other through the lens of their humanity, or only through my own lens? In order for us to walk alongside each other in understanding and dignity, we first must be willing to walk even just a mile in someone else’s shoes.