What is empathy?

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We can value others, hear their point of view, and show them we care.  Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Empathy is the ability to appreciate life from another being’s point of view, especially as regards their pleasure and pain, wishes and aversions.  It can also relate to the ability to communicate that appreciation, as some people argue that empathy is nothing without empathic communication.

There is a further aspect of empathy which many people consider important, and that is the valuing of other people’s points of view, feelings and experience. Some argue that a psychopath could see life from other people’s points of view, and make empathic communications, but without actually setting any value on others’ experience, except in so far as it relates to their own.  They would in essence be cleverly selfish – not really what we are after in describing empathy.

So if you are trying to become more empathic (or empathetic – the words are pretty much interchangeable), then try to:

  1. Value other people
  2. See life from other people’s points of view
  3. Communicate to others a sense of appreciation of their point of view
WHY BE EMPATHIC?

This is a hard question to answer philosophically.  If we offer selfish reasons to be empathic, we are missing the point that empathy involves selflessness.  If we offer selfless reasons, then by definition we are only going to persuade selfless people, who are already likely to be empathic.

Perhaps the best line to take, is a middle line involving the cross-fertilisation between sociability and self-help.    Life is a negotiation.  Every day, you wake up into a world where you are expected to collaborate with others in a joint effort to share resources, comfort and ideas.  If you can demonstrate that you value others, and can see life from their viewpoint, then they are more likely to welcome you, trust you, and share with you.  If we think of humanity as a team, then empathy makes for a better team.

In contrast, imagine a place where no one values others, no one sees life from others’ points of view, and all talk is just to shout one’s own point of view.  In that kind of place, it is arguably harder to negotiate, because there is no middle ground on which to share.  Such places, people and families are hard places, where you have to fight personally for everything you have, and others have to do the same.

SPIRITUAL REASONS TO BE EMPATHIC

If you are trying to develop yourself to be a happier person, spiritually, then it is a little easier to justify empathy.

SPIRITUAL REASON 1 – VALUING OTHERS

Firstly, valuing yourself more highly than others is unwise, as well as a lie.  A great cause of anxiety is the worry that one’s own needs will not be met.  Hence, by definition, valuing one’s own needs excessively is a cause of anxiety.  And a great cause of depression is the identification of one’s own personal interests with one’s interest in life, so that when life does not seem to give one what one wants, one loses interest in it.  Valuing yourself in this single-minded way is a bad bet, and only leads to anxiety and depression.  If you value millions of other beings, then your love is spread a million different ways, and you tend to be happier.

SPIRITUAL REASON 2 – SEEING LIFE FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES

Equally, seeing life from your own perspective alone is definitely unwise, and again unlikely to bring truth.  Anxiety is partly caused by viewing the world through too narrow and distorted a perceptual lens.  And depression is, in part, a kind of boredom with your own narrow viewpoint, as though you were starved of growth and change, but are too unmotivated to widen your perspective. If you can see life from millions of different points of view, then you have almost infinite perspective, and you tend to be freer, and happier.

SPIRITUAL REASON 3 – COMMUNICATING APPRECIATION

Finally, failing to communicate appreciation of others is a big cause of spiritual isolation.  One of the symptoms of anxiety is the feeling that one cannot share without losing something; it is a pessimistic view of communication.  And one of the symptoms of depression is a feeling of being locked in to one’s own world, as though there is no use in sharing – no one understands.  In contrast, taking the risk to communicate gratitude and appreciation makes things happen and opens people up.  It can be a smile, laughter – whatever you want to use to show others that you are listening, can see the point, and appreciate it.

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SUMMARY

Empathy is the ability to:

  1. Value others
  2. See life from others’ points of view
  3. Communicate to others an appreciation of their points of view
It can turn any experience from an over-competitive battle, into a happy negotiation.

Advantages include:

  1. Valuing others spreads your love lots of different ways, and stops you being so obsessed with your own needs
  2. Seeing life from different perspectives frees your mind and helps you grow and change
  3. Taking the risk to communicate gratitude and appreciation makes new things happen, and opens people up
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