It Takes Courage to Be Empathetic

Hug

We can’t take away the pain of the world, but we can make it more tolerable when we are empathetic. (Photo by Arwen Abenstern – KWP, Flickr)

Those of you who follow along with us on a regular basis may have realized that we frequently introduce books that celebrate people, whether real or fictitious, who make a difference in the lives of others. Three of our diamond reviewed books come immediately to mind: My Glory Was I Had Such FriendsThe Trick, and our most recent volume, What Blooms from Dust. What is it that these volumes have in common? The answer is easy: empathy. 

Simply defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” it is a characteristic that is becoming increasingly rare. It isn’t that we have lost sight of the need to demonstrate this very basic tendency, because all of us look for empathy from others when we’ve been hurt physically or emotionally. But as a society, we have become increasingly busy and focused on self, and I believe this is where empathy tends to break down. After all, it is difficult to be empathetic when we rarely look outside the confines of our own microcosm, and thus don’t really see the need to be empathetic toward others.

Back porch breakfast

There was a time when we actually knew our neighbors. (Photo by Kent Kanouse, Flickr)

I mean, how can we when we don’t know our neighbors? Growing up, we knew the people next door. These days, that’s a rarity. In fact, just the other day one of our neighbors felt compelled to host a party and invite all the people on the street she didn’t know in the effort to rectify this dilemma. The result? She was turned away, yelled at, or in some cases, simply ignored. We have foregone human contact in place of expediency, and thus we text instead of talk, send emails instead of meet, or rely on social media to maintain contact, which is quickly becoming a forum for prejudice and distrust rather than a forum to socialize.

Comfort

Rabbi Naftoli Schmukler of Corpus Christi, Texas, embraces and comforts Ed Flower, a local homeowner, who together with his brother, barely survived the hurricane in Port Aransas, Texas, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. (Photo by Chabad Lubavitch, Flickr)

Still, empathy hasn’t disappeared altogether. I have seen it repeatedly in recent years, and even experienced it as friends rallied to help someone in need. When we first came to Dallas several years ago with only the clothes on our backs, people we just met offered us lodging, others provided us with groceries, and some even offered us furniture once we found a place to live. Then there are friends we met last year who narrowly escaped Hurricane Harvey, and they too recounted stories of how they received hospitality from people they didn’t know as they headed north to Dallas. Some of my relatives were among those that took in total strangers who couldn’t escape the rising waters fast enough, and new friendships were forged as a result. So empathy is there, and it often raises its beautiful head in the face of disaster. But do we always need a tragedy to bring out our empathetic nature?

Maya Angelou

Poet Maya Angelou knew that sometimes we all need a bit more courage to be empathetic. (Photo by York College ISLGP, Flickr)

Poet, singer, memorist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou may have answered this question best when she said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have the courage to display it.” I was reminded of this quote only today when I discovered how many people in our community are homeless. Complete families are living on park benches, sleeping outside libraries, or camping out in area parks because they can no longer afford a place to live. Even so, we’ve heard people who have never been in this predicament say that it isn’t their problem, and that the homeless are in that position because they choose to be, or because they are lazy. But in many instances, this isn’t the case. These are hardworking people who have simply fallen on hard times, people who would love a job to do. In cases like this, we need to open our eyes to their problems rather than just offer up empty solutions because we can’t be bothered to care.

Worry

Everyone has something in their lives that they worry about, that thing they fear no one will truly understand, that secret they rarely share with the rest of the world. (Photo by mrhayata, Flickr)

Even today, I received an email from a writer friend who said he has been getting notes from his readers that have asked where he’s been, why he hasn’t been churning out more books, and why he’s been absent on social media. The barrage of questions motivated him to open up about something he seldom does: his family’s battle with mental illness, when every day he wonders if he’s going to get a call that says his loved one has finally succeeded and committed suicide, and how this constant state of worry makes it difficult for him to focus, let alone write. And that is only one of the personal dramas he’s facing in his life. It made me examine my own conversations of late, and wonder if I’ve asked intrusive or callous questions without giving a friend or colleague the benefit of the doubt.

None of us has all the answers. After all, since when have any of us been able to truly bring about a lasting solution to mankind’s problems? The Bible even asks us “How can a man understand his own way,” then reminds us that “It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” (Proverbs 20:24; Jeremiah 10:23) Even so, it also supplies us with what is commonly called The Golden Rule, the admonition to extend empathy to others, to do to others what we would want them to do to us. (Matthew 7:12) I’m not saying these things from a source of judgement, but from a place of hope.

Embrace

It costs nothing to be kind and empathetic to others. (Photo by Travis Modisette, Flickr)

We all need a reminder on occasion to take a minute before we speak, to truly listen to what others are going through, to offer a hug or a shoulder to lean on when people are in crisis. We don’t have to possess the answers to solve other people’s problems either, and it is likely that we won’t be able to make them go away anyway. But it costs nothing to be kind and a bit of tenderness goes a long way toward nurturing others, quieting pain and restoring hope. In fact, a heart full of empathy can restore a smile unlike anything else. So as we go forward, remember to be courageous enough to be empathetic. Together we can make the world just a bit softer, a touch more tolerable, and much kinder for all.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

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