Dear Fiona: Cultivate Empathy

Dear Fiona,

In yesterday’s letter, I wrote about how much I love to watch you watch people. Today I’d like to share a bit more about how I hope you think about what you see in them.

You’ll hear the word at the heart of today’s letter thrown around a lot. Some people seem to think “empathy” means “I feel sorry for you.” Others seem to think it means “I understand you,” or “I agree with you.” Still others seem to think it means living and acting out of emotion rather than thoughtfulness, logic, and reason.

In truth, though, empathy is none of these. At its simplest and most essential point, empathy means nothing more or less than, “I hear you.”

I can feel sorry for someone simply by observing that something unfortunate happened to them. That is not empathy. And if I’m truly taking on someone else’s perspective, I can empathize without agreeing with their opinions, or even fully understanding them.

But I can’t empathize without hearing them.

Empathy is first and foremost an exercise in perspective-taking . . . stepping out of your own head-space and seeing a moment through the eyes of another.

I’m not very good at this . . . a fact that has already impacted you more than I would wish. When I’m tired or frustrated or hungry or worried, I don’t always think about the fact that you might also be tired or frustrated or hungry or worried, and might just not have the words yet to explain to me what you’re feeling.

The opposite of empathizing is judging. And that, I’m afraid, is something at which I’m better than I want to admit. Too often, when you’re sitting on the floor wailing at me, I get frustrated or anxious rather than trying to access what you might be feeling. When I can take on your perspective, sometimes the answer is pretty clear: Your tummy is empty. Or your diaper is not. Or you’re tired. Or you miss mommy, or big brother. Or you don’t know what’s going on and it scares you. Or you do know what’s going on and it bothers you.

Of course, all of these feelings are perfectly acceptable for adults. But somehow we tend to invalidate such emotions in children – especially small children who may not have the wherewithal to express them in ways less anxiety-producing than an eardrum-shattering shriek.

So we judge. We decide that kids are “being difficult.” or “misbehaving” or “being bad.” (How someone too young to understand or control their own actions and reactions can possibly be “bad” is beyond me, but sadly, that’s the culture we live in.)

And while I may not have thought about your actions in those exact terms when you’re having a difficult time, I’ve also not worked as hard as I want to in trying to hear you. It’s my sincere hope that as you get better at expressing your feelings and needs, I’ll get better at hearing them.

The other part of empathy relates to what I wrote to you yesterday about watching people. I very sincerely hope that you will come to know the difference between knowing about a person, and knowing that person.

Knowing about someone is easy. All it takes is information. And particularly today when every scrap of information about most of the people you will ever meet is available online with the right amount of digging in the right places, you can gather everything you need to know about someone without ever talking to them or meeting them in person.

What you can’t do is empathize with them. Knowing about someone gives you every single bit of information you need to judge them as you see fit. More information doesn’t help you know them better, it simply helps you judge them more accurately. It doesn’t do is give you even the slightest bit of insight into their perspective . . . and without an inkling of what that perspective looks like, you’re simply incapable of taking it on . . . of seeing the world through their eyes.

To do that, you have to do more than know about them. You have to know them.

There are a few parts to this, some of which will have to wait for future letters. There are just two of them that I’d like to touch on here.

First, in order to know someone, hear them without judging. Because if you’re judging, you’re making it about you, not about them. And if it’s about you, then you’re not really experiencing them . . . just your opinions of them.

Which puts us right back to knowing about them rather than knowing them.

This is particularly hard for me. When I was younger I trained in formal debating, which requires you to listen very closely to what the people on the other side are saying . . . with the intent of ultimately proving them wrong. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of empathy, which requires listening very closely to what those around you are saying without any regard to whether they are, in your opinion, right or wrong.

Second, in order to know someone, see people, not groups.

The culture we live in, more and more every day, is built around seeing people in groups. There are racial groups, gender groups, political groups, social groups, vocational groups . . . everywhere you look, another group.

The thing about groups is: They make judging people very, very easy. If you’re in this group, it means this. If you’re in that group, it means you can’t possibly be or think that.

This gets dicey, because some people’s experiences are very heavily shaped precisely because they belong to this or that group. So it might be impossible to truly hear someone without seeking to understand what it means to be a part of their group.

But that’s different than simply seeing the group, and missing the people inside it.

Empathy is not an easy thing. It’s very, very hard. Trying to view even the people closest to me empathetically may be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

But it’s also one of the most rewarding. Seeing someone with empathy it means you’ll always be giving them the benefit of the doubt. It can head off many difficult conversations before they even start, and can turn what would have been an argument into an opportunity to dive deeper with someone and get to know them more fully than you did before.

So my hope for you in this area is the same as my hope for myself: That we will grow together in seeing, knowing, and empathizing with the people in our lives, up to and including each other.

I love you,

Love,
~Dad

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