- It is tempting to turn away from problems in the world, telling ourselves it is no concern of ours.
- Connecting with others is an important part of the human condition.
- Caring for others leads to pro-social behavior.
As I write this, and frankly every day of the year, there are multiple human tragedies unfolding in the world. Thousands have been displaced or lost their homes to wildfires in Maui and Greece. The war in Ukraine still rages on. Closer to home, our neighbors may be struggling with job loss or illness. It is tempting to look away, to say, “That is not my concern.” This is where empathy comes in.
What Is Empathy?
In short, empathy is the ability to imagine what another human being is thinking or feeling. A more colloquial explanation is the capacity to walk in another’s shoes, metaphorically speaking. Finally, my favorite explanation of empathy is more comprehensive and comes from Dr. Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She writes, “Empathy plays a critical and societal role, enabling sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals and providing an emotional bridge that promotes pro-social behavior.” However we define empathy, it is crucial to the human experience. Consider the following benefits of empathy:
There is no greater way to connect with those around us than by striving to understand their experience. This promotes trust and allows us to respond appropriately to social situations. By expressing care for others, we can become better friends, relatives, and neighbors.
Be it in our own neighborhood or across the world, it is difficult to have conflict with others if we are able to understand their position. I recall a lesson I learned on an airplane years ago that has always stuck with me. Already cramped and uncomfortable in my seat, the older man behind me kept bumping me. I was considering what to do, including possibly snapping at him, when his adult daughter explained that he suffers from Parkinson’s, and the movement would diminish after he took his medication. I now try to put myself in the shoes of others, even if I cannot fully comprehend their situation. This helps in traffic when someone cuts me off. I say to myself, “I have been in a hurry like that; too bad they are so stressed.”
On a small (but important) scale, we can make those around us more comfortable by exerting empathy. My own neighbors have done everything from bringing in a package that was sitting in the rain to giving us a hand with our trash and recycling when we forgot it was trash day. The process of empathy allows these kind deeds to take place as it requires us to consider what might be helpful to the other in each situation. On a larger scale, it fosters philanthropy and humanitarian aid as seen by many of our neighbors flying Ukranian flags and just as many donating money or goods. Even though most of us have not been to Ukraine, we understand the concept of suffering and want to help in some small way.
Finally, there is evidence that empathy can be taught and developed just like most other skills. This is important in my line of work, especially since research shows that empathy declines during medical training (Nunes et al., 2011). To combat this, my colleagues and I teach Cura Personalis (caring for the whole person) to first-year medical students at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Thus, before the students learn anatomy or microbiology, they are taught to consider the emotional needs of their future patients and to practice empathy in the face of their suffering. To me, this is a hopeful sign that the world can do better, as can we all.
Nunes, P., Williams, S., Sa, B., & Stevenson, K. (2011). A study of empathy decline in students from five health disciplines during their first year of training. Int J Med Educ, 2, 12–17.