Yesterday I wrote about the counterintuitive virtue in self-centeredness. Today I’d like to address the counterpoint to that. As I wrote yesterday, I believe it’s vitally important to ignore all the advice you’ll hear throughout your life from people who tell you never to think of yourself – to always think of others and base your priorities on their needs and never on your own. But as I’ve said several times throughout these letters, I believe it’s just as important to remember that, in any relationship, there are two sets of needs at stake. This is true regardless of the nature of the relationship. It’s true of your relationship with your best friend. It’s also true of your relationship with your worst enemy.
That’s where empathy comes in. In one of her letters, your mom wrote about “perspective-taking.” That’s a piece of the empathy I’m talking about. She wrote, “When we are able to take the perspective of another person, we step outside of our shoes and into theirs. We imagine life from their perspective. Rather than judge what we see them doing, we are able to ask why they are doing it. We see beyond their doing to their identity, and we focus more on what makes us the same rather than that which makes us different.”
Just about anybody can cultivate sympathy for others – only a psychopath is unable to understand and feel sorry for someone who is suffering or in trouble. Empathy, though, is deeper. It’s digging down into your own experiences with the universal needs we all share, and using those experiences to not just feel bad for another person whose needs are not being met, but actually identify with their own feelings and experiences. It’s taking time out to enter their story and share it with them in their time of need.
And it’s very, very hard to do sometimes.
You will get in disagreements throughout your life (probably a fair share of those disagreements will be with me). But when you do, take a look at the other person in the disagreement and consider this fact – and it is a fact: They are, just as you are, acting out of a set of strategies designed to meet their needs. Sometimes that strategy might involve an in-depth conversation. Sometimes it might involve screaming and shouting. Sometimes it might involve waving a gun around or even using it on another person. But it’s all designed to accomplish the same purpose.
Does that mean that if they adopt a strategy of violence you should let them use it against you without standing up for yourself or protecting yourself? There are some who believe this. I do not. I don’t believe empathy requires you to let other people take advantage of you. That’s where the self-centeredness I wrote about yesterday comes in.
Does empathizing with someone who adopts a strategy of violence mean that they’re excused from the consequences of their actions? Absolutely not! And if someone were to adopt such a strategy and threaten me or your mom or you, if I was unable to convince them of the ineffectiveness of this strategy, either because the situation didn’t give me a chance or because they rejected what I had to say, I would meet force with force and they would not like the result.
What it does mean is not judging the motivations behind what someone is doing. Always do what you must to protect yourself and your loved ones, but do what you can to empathize with others, even those who would do you harm.
Perhaps most importantly, remember to have empathy for yourself – both as you are now, as well as your past selves.
What does this mean?
I’ll give you an example. One of the reasons I’m able to write these letters to you as I’ve been doing is because I’ve cultivated empathy for myself as a child. I think we parents sometimes forget what it’s like to be a kid. We get so far distant from that wondrous time that we lose the ability to empathize with that person we once were . . . and the people, like you, who are coming along behind us. There have even been times when I’ve despised who I was as a child . . . when I’ve completely failed to have grace not only for children like you, but for myself. Part of writing these letters is, for me, an exercise in empathizing with you, and with where you will be as you go through the rest of your childhood. But part of it, too, is remembering my own childhood . . . thinking through my own mistakes, shortsightedness and misconceptions, and having empathy for the person I was back then. Recapturing that perspective and working to understand it again, in a way that I can communicate to you in order to save you the heartache I endured at my own hands.
Like I said earlier, empathy is hard! But what you’ll find out as your get used to thinking in terms of empathy, is that it’s probably harder to have empathy for yourself than for anyone else.
But when you make a habit of empathizing, both with yourself and others, you’re able to eliminate judgments and realize that their actions are not about you, but are the only way they can think in the moment to meet their needs . . . needs you share with them.
This allows you to, refrain from taking their activities personally, and respond calmly and rationally rather than reacting to them.
Like I said, this stuff is hard! You will find out, if you haven’t already by the time you read this letter, that I love a good debate. But too often debate becomes the opposite of empathy. Rather than really listening to what the other person is saying, too often I’m listening only with the intention of crafting a finely-tuned argument about why they’re wrong. If I’m doing that, I’m not understanding them or where they’re coming from . . . and if I’m not doing that, I’m not really cultivating relationship with them.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because I’m telling you all this is a good set of habits to cultivate, doesn’t mean I’m all that good at it myself. Mostly, I’m not. I’m learning, but most of the time I still fail. I’m sure there will be times when I fail to empathize with you, and for that I apologize in advance. My goal is to continue to get better at empathizing, and to always try to keep your perspective in mind when we’re discussing things with one another.
For your part, I urge you to cultivate both self-centeredness and empathy, as contradictory as that might seem. Always be aware of your own needs and the strategies you’re using to meet them. And do the best you can to be aware of the needs of others with whom you interact, and the strategies they are using in turn.
You’ll find that the more you do this, the more people’s actions that might have once seemed crazy, insane, inappropriate or just plain rude, suddenly make a lot more sense. That may not make any given action any more appropriate, but it can help you understand what the person taking that action is going through, and allow you to have grace for them . . . and, when it comes to your own actions, grace for yourself.