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The Argument for Empathy

Here's how leaning in, rather than running away, during difficult times can help you become a kinder and more compassionate friend, coworker, partner, and family member.

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“Understanding is the other name of love. If you don’t understand, you can’t love,” once wrote the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. In this new political climate that we live in, it’s very easy to give in to feelings of frustration, despair and anger while simultaneously wanting the world to be a more loving and kind place. These seemingly two contradictory experiences—where we feel such strong, negative emotions internally and long for love to be the norm—are not as diametrically opposite as one might suspect.

Let’s start by looking at painful emotions. My most recent book, Love Hurts, is about the ways that heartbreak manifests in our day-to-day life. For many of us, this simple term, “heartbreak,” encapsulates all types of experiences (for example: the death of a loved one, a painful break-up, even the suffering of feeling bombarded by the news of our society) as well as the emotions that these experiences spark (such as betrayal, rejection, sadness, or loneliness).

When we feel heartbreak, be it because of something happening in our personal life or in the world around us, we often want to distance ourselves from these visceral experiences and strong emotions. We want to run away from them, grabbing something sugary to eat, alcoholic to drink, or someone warm to sleep with. We tamp the emotions down and hope they will go away. Or we act out on them in ways that are not particularly skillful or helpful to ourself or others.

Instead, we can learn to be with the emotions as they are. Through meditation, we learn to just stay with reality, as it is, as opposed to how we might want it to be or how it used to be. We train in remaining in the present moment, either through resting with the breath, a mantra, sound, or any such object of meditation, so that when strong emotions come up, we hold our seat instead of perpetuating the suffering we may experience around them. We get to know the emotions so well through meditation that when they come up in the rest of our life, it’s not this awful experience but more like greeting an old friend: “Oh, Angst. Nice to see you again. Hope you don’t stick around too long.” We acknowledge them, lean into them, and then ideally see our way through them as a result.


Related: Working with Strong Emotions


There’s some good news about working with our strong emotions: They make us more empathetic. The more we look at how we get stuck and suffer, the more we begin to notice the suffering of other people around us. This is the birth of empathy. We understand (there’s that word again) all the various ways that we experience pain, sadness, and the myriad emotions of heartbreak. We know it so well that we start to notice these same root emotions playing out in other people. It could be that jerk of a co-worker we don’t get along with, or that political figure who we think is not looking out for anyone’s interests but his own, or a family member who keeps bringing conversations to a painful point.

The more familiar we are with how we get lost in suffering, the more we see when these people go down the same road. With empathy at the foreground of our imagination, we might not get lost in reacting negatively to their strong emotions but actually notice our heart soften. “Huh,” we might think, “that person is just trying to be happy…just like me.” We realize we are not so separate from that person; we are both trying to live a life based in love and sanity. We understand that desire, even if we don’t agree with how they are going about striving for that.

From a Buddhist point of view, love is innate to who we are. When we’re hurt, we may try to shut down our heart and not be available for love. We want to protect ourselves, so we throw up some armor and try to harden ourselves against the world. Yet underneath all that armor, there is always some part of us that yearns to love, that yearns to connect and, as Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully pointed out, to understand. We are naturally empathetic; this quality is always within us waiting to be discovered.

I should note, empathy is a different beast than sympathy. Often when I think of sympathy, I think of pitying someone; you know they’re having a hard time and you earnestly desire that they suffer less. Empathy is based in understanding, because you too have suffered in a similar way. When we look at our current political climate, for example, we might feel bowled over in despair and want to do something about it. Yet if you think about it, people on both sides of the aisle would probably describe themselves in that very same camp.

Let’s do a thought exercise to help make the case for empathy. Think of someone you disagree with on a very potent level. Now, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • Do you think they want their family to be safe? Do you desire that same thing?
  • Do you think they want to have good health? Do you desire that same thing?
  • Do you think they want to be fiscally solvent? Do you desire that same thing?

I imagine you do, too. Although you may disagree on many things, there are some basic points upon which you can access your understanding for this individual.

I’d like to think that very few people wake up in the morning and think, “You know what? I just want to be a jerk today. I think I’ll just put my needs before everyone else and, should I see someone who wants to obstruct that, I’ll tear them a new one.” I think all of us wake up with the desire to be kind, compassionate, and loving and, well…we often get lost along the way. The more we can look to those we don’t necessarily get along with and find little access points for connection and understanding, the more we learn to live a life based in love, and encourage them to do the same, simply by offering our heart and empathy.

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