Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “empathy” as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.”
In a recent re-run of my favorite sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Frank, Raymond’s father, took exception to the killing of a bird that was wreaking havoc on a set of in-laws. The other characters were shocked by Frank’s reaction of empathy toward the bird because he rarely (if ever) shows empathy toward the people around him; particularly his immediate family.
Watching that show gives our family a good chuckle because we always seem to be able to relate to each episode in one way or another. I suppose it reassures us that we are not alone and that although we may think we are the only crazies on Earth, we obviously are not.
But there was something about Frank’s empathy for the bird that made me think about the way in which we perceive things. Why did the bird’s well-being mean more to Frank than that of the people around him? Why was he able to feel compassion and sensitivity in that situation but not others?
In considering that scenario, I began to dissect the definition of “empathy.”
The action of understanding: How much thought do we give to the plight of another and how often do we ask questions in order to better understand a situation?
“Understanding” is achieved when we make an effort to show humility by coming to the realization that many things are happening outside of our limited scope of knowledge. I have yet to meet a person who knows everything. I’ve met several who believe that they do, but never one who really did.
Being aware of: In order to become aware, we must make an effort to become conscious of the events around us and the effect those events have on others, not only ourselves.
Throughout the past couple of weeks, many people have become short-tempered and impatient with the impact the winter storms have made on our community. Angry customers have lashed out at the local power companies, schools and communication entities, including the Sedalia Democrat.
In order to become more aware, we might ask questions rather than spew inappropriate suggestions and demands at those who had worked tirelessly to accommodate their customers to the best of their abilities under unprecedented circumstances.
Being sensitive to: “Sensitivity” usually means little more than listening instead of speaking and watching what we say when we do speak.
A friend of mine works in a high-traffic, public arena and is often surrounded by many people who are unknown to her. She is a white woman who is married to a black man and has three beautiful children. Frequently, she becomes the victim of public, racial epithets and most often, the person committing the offense has no knowledge of her situation.
Although she is a strong woman, she is sensitive to unkind words regarding the color of skin, as all of us should be. Sensitivity speaks kindly.
Vicariously experiencing feelings, thoughts and experiences of others: This means making an attempt to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This action might be the most difficult to accomplish because every pair of shoes fit differently.
Consider this scenario: A manager is under intense pressure with a looming deadline to achieve a goal. His future employment with the company rides solely on meeting this deadline. An employee who recently lost his spouse has not been as productive as the manager needs him to be. Both of these individuals require the other to live vicariously through each other without either actually having experienced the other’s situation. They must both employ empathy in order to achieve the goal.
After dissecting the meaning of empathy, the question regarding Frank’s ability to empathize with the bird, but not with people still remains. I’m afraid the answer to that question goes a little deeper than I am qualified to address, but it’s a good thing he’s married to Marie. Her ability to empathize is equivalent to his. I suppose that’s what makes the show so humorous.
We are all imperfect people with imperfect lives. But the more intentional our thoughts become regarding the amount of empathy and respect we grant others, the more happiness we will be able to enjoy and pay forward in an imperfect world.
Please join me in giving people a break by exercising empathy this week.