I get nervous when I have to speak in public. My heart starts to pound in my chest, I get knots in my stomach and my mouth gets dry. I suspect you know how I feel. The descriptions of those feelings connect with you on a very real level because you’ve probably felt those things too.
The word empathy comes from two Greek words:
- Em: inward or inside oneself
- Pathos: feeling, suffering, emotion
Empathy means understanding what someone else is feeling because that same feeling is inside you. You know the feeling because you’ve lived it.
Poorly Scribbled Words
I went to see a speaker named Rob Bell at an event called Drops Like Stars. He had a cool way of demonstrating what empathy means and gave the entire audience the gift of experiencing empathy. Rob Bell is left handed, and he injured his left hand at one point and had to learn to function with his right hand. He said it was a glimpse into understanding disability. He asked us to write with our non-dominant hand the words “I know how you feel” on a small white card and he asked a few questions to the crowd:
“Please stand if you’ve suffered with an addiction.”
About half of the people stood up. Rob asked us to trade cards with someone we didn’t know.
“Please stand if you’ve been affected by cancer.”
As far as I know, everyone in the audience stood up. We all looked at each other in a moment of silence, and Rob asked us to trade cards again.
I still have my card with the poorly scribbled words on it. I look at it every now and again. Somewhere, there’s a complete stranger who knows exactly how I feel.
I was Angry
When I first met the woman who would become my wife, we were both 17. My parents were going through a divorce and I was an angry, stressed out guy. I would snap and yell easily. Unfortunately she had to experience that. Then one day she told me something that changed everything and helped me chill out and get my anger issues fixed up. She said:
“People are allowed to make mistakes.”
I’ve carried that statement since, and it’s changed to mean so many things to me over the years.
“People are allowed to be wrong.”
“People are allowed to do things that don’t make sense.”
“People are allowed to be people.”
I think when we have a hard time being empathetic to other people we don’t see them as whole people. We see them as problems, frustrations, obstacles. We also have a hard time seeing ourselves as whole people, because we’re failing to connect with other humans, as if we don’t have issues and we’re above it all. We don’t want to recognize our own brokenness.
Empathy means that I know how you feel. I’ve lived it. We share this experience. You’re like me. So may you come to know how other people feel, and begin to see them as whole people just like you.
This post was originally posted on Think Shift's Blog