One of the verbal obsessions of recent years has been the word ‘empathy.’ However, I’m unsure if we feel it as much as we mention it.
According to the dictionary, empathy is, ‘the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.’ If there’s anyone who thinks that empathy is easy after reading this definition, then good for them. While scientists still don’t have a full grasp of the human consciousness’ intricacies, isn’t it a bit naïve to believe that our own consciousness could associate so easily with that of another? Perhaps we can understand another person’s simple wishes, distinct needs, or outward emotions. However, when it’s about empathy, understanding is just a starting point. When we use this term, we expect and imply much more than a stale, “yes, yes, I get it.” But how successful are we at placing our own consciousness into the place of another?
Scott Adams—who recently received a lot of attention and criticism in the US for his opinions on Trump and his book regarding the mechanisms of persuasion (you may know him as the creator of the Dilbert comics)—argues that if we’re unable to defend the other person’s idea in our own mind, it means that we also don’t have a firm grasp of our own idea.
What a great empathy test for us all! Let’s set aside the world of more mutual and understanding emotions, and test our empathy on more difficult terms and ideas. For example, are we able to write a paragraph that thoroughly explains, rationalizes, and even defends that suggestion made during an office meeting which we found ridiculously wrong? Or would we be able to introduce and explain a political stance or religion, that we’re quite detached from, like a true follower? Can we play devil’s advocate by taking a desire we see as utterly useless and supporting it with persistence and insistence?
If we can (more than simply saying yes to these questions) make these situations a reality, then I think we have a right to discuss empathy and expect it from others. Though maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe those who have internalized empathy with sincerity are able to approach others with such an understanding and compassion that empathy is not expected in return.