Empathy Is Admitting You Don't Understand | Sojourners

Empathy Is Admitting You Don't Understand

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As humans, we have an innate desire to see and understand. We want to feign comprehension, in order to avoid the despair of our limited understanding. I’ve noticed this phenomenon recently in what started as a personal experience. I was born with a rare genetic condition that causes my skin to blister much more easily than the average person. It is my normal. There are not many people on the planet who can actually understand. However, this has not stopped countless people from trying to convince me they do.

The story goes something like this: A person sees me limping and gets concerned; I explain that my feet are blistered because … They launch into a story about the time they once burned themselves on a hot pan and blistered, about the time they hiked in Birkenstocks in the rain, about the time when they ran a marathon and had a blistered heel. In those moments, while I am in pain and listening to someone pretend they understand, it takes everything in me to not scream, “THERE IS NO WAY YOU UNDERSTAND!”

My skin hurts sometimes. I’m still a relatively privileged person. My experiences have often left me searching introspectively. When have I tried to falsely relate to someone? Who do I pretend to be?

There are experiences I don’t, and never will be able to, understand. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man worried about being pulled over. I don’t know the burden of a refugee at the border. I don’t know what it’s like to be dependent on a wheelchair. I don’t know what it’s like to have depression. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay in a church. I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless. There are a lot of things I don’t know. There are a lot of things you don’t know.

Often, our response to hearing others’ struggles or worries is that we “totally get it.” People find the tiniest sliver of commonality and attempt to make a connection. It’s next to impossible for someone to share their story without someone else swooping in to minimize it.

I watched a conversation unfold online recently that went something like this: A mother shared that she was scared and will not allow her black teenage son to wear his hood on his jacket up in public; a white mother immediately responded that she wouldn’t let her white son do that either, because, well, “it’s just rude.” She failed to mention that she didn’t worry about her son being falsely accused or brutalized for something as meaningless as wearing a hoodie.

Why do we always pretend we “get it?" We watch the stories with the same pattern unfold daily. Someone shares their worry, their struggle, their hurt, while someone else comes in to save the day with a forced connection to their experience.

This is not empathy. It’s certainly not bringing comfort to the person who has made themselves vulnerable. Attempting to see connections and shared experiences when there is not one is offensive. It is a selfish act. We are attempting to minimize another person’s actual experience by telling them we understand. We do this to absolve ourselves of the responsibility of accepting our ignorance. We seek to prove that we have nothing to learn — that we’ve made it.

In order to empathize with others with different life experiences, we have to lay down our pride and accept that we don’t “get it,” but that we believe them. What does this look like?

Men who don’t experience habitual, casual harassment believing the stories of women who do.

People who appreciate law enforcement accepting that the uniform they respect incites fear in others.

Straight people believing LGBTQ people when they share they’ve felt rejected by the church.

Abled-bodied people listening to and making accommodations for disabled people who are frustrated by inaccessibility.

White people listening to the grievances of people of color, and taking steps to remedy any hurt they have caused.

The list could go on, but the key to empathy is understanding that we, in fact, don’t understand. Some would say that the term for this is sympathy, rather than empathy, because the word empathy comes with the connotation that we must be able to relate to someone else’s experience. Sympathy is what we offer to another when we acknowledge that a situation or experience is unfortunate, and leave it at that. Sympathy lets us claim that we “feel bad,” but absolves us from any further responsibility to learn or change. Empathy, however, calls us to consider another person’s story and reflect on their experience. Empathy calls us to be compassionate and to truly consider how another person feels. It calls us to want to learn, grow, and evolve toward love.

May we learn to truly weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, even when we aren’t weeping or rejoicing for ourselves.

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