‘The Gift of Empathy’
People often confuse the meaning of sympathy and empathy.
Sympathy is feeling sorry for another person; we experience pity, sorrow, sadness for their plight. We feel for the other person.
Empathy, on the other hand, is when we actually can feel another person’s emotional state. Human beings, and some other animals, are hardwired to be empathic. We can often sense another person’s feelings even when they say nothing.
Neurobiological attunement to others is nature’s way of showing us that we are all connected. When an infant cries, mothers can sense when their baby is needing food, a diaper change, to be held or is just liking the sound of its own voice.
This empathy allows us to intimately connect with others. Some people have differentiated between cognitive and emotional empathy. The former is the ability to understand, based on our own experience, how a person could experience their world. We hear the words and can imagine what the feeling must be like.
Emotional empathy is the ability to feel the other’s feelings. It is the ability to be open to feel the pain, joy, sadness, discomfort of another person even when we have not been in a similar situation. When we see another person being hurt, it often evokes a pain within us.
When we watch children playing with one another, even preverbal children, and they see another child in pain, they instinctively want to comfort that child. We can see similar behavior in our pets, especially dogs, who can sense when their master is hurting. This is empathy.
We need to develop our empathy more today than ever before. People all around us are in pain. They feel depressed, anxious, sad, lonely and often hopeless. Many people are without jobs, homes, and even food and clothing.
When we think of helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves, we often wonder what we can do to help. We often feel that the need is so great, whatever we do is not enough.
We seldom think about giving the gift of empathy. People need human connection. We need to be seen, heard, understood and known.
I remember talking with teenage foster children and hearing them say how much they wished someone would know their name. Homeless people have expressed similar sentiments: “I wasn’t always homeless, ya know. I had a life. I had a job. Now I am invisible. People walk on by—they avoid me.”
The greatest human kindness is the willingness to spend time with another person, allowing them to tell their story. When someone is sick or grieving, we cannot fix them. But we can sit with them, listen to them, see them and truly hear them.
It is often much easier to do something, to give a gift or to write a check. But to spend time with another person in need, to be empathic, that takes caring to another level.
So, the next time you see someone hurting, take a minute or two and give the gift of empathy.
Edward A. Dreyfus
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