Imagine a world where escalating discord, decreases to a point of near extinction. A place where people feel connected every day, and can view themselves in another’s shoes, seeing life through a foreign lens. A world where each person feels valuable and necessary to the future of mankind, and thus making a place for themselves in history. Is that world a possibility or a far-fetched dream? We have never arrived at this world, but I am convinced all things are possible and empathy is the means to get there.
‘Empathy is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings and letting this knowledge influence our actions.’ Most everyone, deep down, has the capacity for empathy, but just like musical ability, we all have room for improvement. Some of us play easily, while others struggle with a few notes. What’s important is that we each can play and have our notes combine to make a beautiful symphony.
It is not difficult to empathize with children because we have all lived through a childhood. We can relate because we have something to compare. We remember the playground and being picked on. We remember the insecurities and joy. Imagining a particular child’s scenario comes easy to us. Relating to another who we are experiencing conflict with can be extremely challenging. A coworker who is always contradicting us in front of other coworkers, or an ex-spouse who is against us at every turn, can create drama in our life and cause us to hate. Even in the worst of confrontations, if both sides can envision being in the other’s shoes, understanding, peace and a win/win scenario are possible.
For a moment, place yourself into another’s life, seeing through their eyes. When you learn to go there, amazing things will happen. I have seen first hand, the power of empathy. We do not have to stop at the local level. When we extend the same power to different cultures, peace is possible.
Last week at a party, I was describing to friends a recent medical mission trip to Haiti. The story involved Haitian customs officials confiscating the medications that we needed for a medical clinic. I was offended by the situation. One of the people listening to my story, who had been to Haiti many times, starting telling me the Haitian point of view, where the government was concerned about expired drugs and if you couldn’t prove the expiration date, the drugs were impounded. I was perturbed because I wanted to feel indignation. I felt uncomfortable to have my anger stirred with compassion, but it effectively took me out of my perspective long enough to see other solutions.
As I reflect now on the conversation, I see a beautiful example of cultural empathy. With her words, I began to understand Haiti’s government’s perspective and can now try to work within their guidelines. I don’t necessarily agree with their stance, but I can accept it.
For 130 years, the International Red Cross has been striving to remain neutral in warzones and disasters. Their neutrality and compassion for all sides have opened doors to dialogue, where previously those doors were nailed shut. Their cultural empathy in all situations enables people to work together. Five months after Porte au Prince’s devastating earthquake in January of 2010, I witnessed hundreds of thousands of make shift tents, stacked upon themselves. And every so often, I saw a large red cross in the sea of tents and felt a deep sense that things were going to be okay because the Red Cross was there. Life was not going to be okay soon, but the Red Cross’s presence would put things into place that would promote healing, restoration, and compassion. Their symbol gave hope in the most horrific times and it started with empathy.
What can we do? Start locally, one conversation at a time, enveloping our listening with empathy. Consider where the other is coming from. Teach our children about the power of empathy. Have them imagine being in another’s shoes and show them how to change an enemy into a friend. Together, we can create a world where discord is resolved because both sides see a broader picture. A world where we deeply care and want to find a solution that benefits both parties. A world where each of us contributes because we matter. I do not know about you, but this is the world I want to leave for my children.