ON EMPATHY: WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

When you walk past people on the street from all walks of life, what do you think? Nothing. Some might say which is fair enough. Let’s change the question. What do you think about your neighbor, your friends, family or the people you meet daily who might be the cashier at the corner shop or at Tesco’s, Asda or Aldi? The perception we have of them is usually determined by the interaction we have with them and this usually dictates our actions. Are we always empathetic or do we have to consciously remind ourselves to show empathy?

We encounter many scenarios where we sometimes have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to understand what they’re going through to be able to interact with them or help them. This allows us to share in the experiences of the people in our lives and those we meet.

Let me share a hypothetical story. Imagine you are on holiday with a few friends and waiting in line at a McDonald’s to place your order. You notice how rude and impatient the attendant seems as she takes orders. What do you do? Do you get tense, or do you brace yourself to be approached the same way and do you place your order in a similar fashion because you expect the same cold interaction? However, on reaching your turn, you realise you had the wrong interpretation of the situation. On getting closer, you hear some of the conversations. Customers are not pleased with how long it took to get their order and how long the queue is getting and are taking it out on the young lady.

Now, what do you think? She has probably been on her feet all day possibly with a short break if any at all and not enough food. Yet, she must be patient with you, be polite and get your order on time. Now, what do you think of those customers who feel entitled to always get an immaculate experience despite their rude disposition? What do you think of her attitude at that point and do you think it is not based on what you see but on the result of the situation she finds herself?

Now you may be wondering what I am getting at. Empathy and perspective are the keywords. What we see and how we interpret it dictates how we act towards others. In the story above, you may first see an angry, rude cashier until you get closer and get a clearer view of the situation. Then you understood her position, sometimes you do not have to place yourself in the other person shoes to be empathetic towards them.

As humans, we should do our best to be mindful of others. She tries to be patient and polite but upon constant tirade from these customers, her tone gets sharper and she comes across as rude. So, I begin to think, what would I do in that situation? Would I get angry and rude; would I brush it off? Or would I place my order with a smile and thank her after?

What is empathy?

empathy people support each other
Image by Vonecia Carswell

We sometimes confuse empathy and sympathy as there’s sometimes a thin line between the two. The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. However, sympathy means to feel pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune or bad circumstance. Does empathy only apply to negative circumstances or does it also apply to positive situations?

Going back to the story, as you get closer to her, you can see how tired and stressed she looks. Yet, they chose to be rude and inconsiderate in how they interact with her. The next question comes to mind which I know some of you would think of; What would Jesus do? Well taking it from both sides, let’s look at one thing Jesus did. His death for mankind.

Can you just imagine that for a second? He left his heavenly glory, came down as a man, not in a rich family or a royal family but to a virgin and a carpenter. Took upon himself all our sufferings, pain guilt and sins. He lived as a man, experienced everything that we can think a man can experience. He was tempted, loved, betrayed, and yet, he still did all of that just because he loves us. Imagine if that was us. We had to do what was best for others and not just what was best for us!

Empathy doesn’t ask for that much, yet we find it hard to do in most cases. In Ephesians 4: 2 in the bible, it says: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” and another scripture in 1 Peter 3:8 it says: “Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted and keep a humble attitude” I think these scriptures speak for themselves.

How can we be empathetic?

Applying it to our real lives. We know some people are out to cause trouble. But pause and think, how can I be peaceful and patient with someone who knows what they’re doing is wrong? As we know them today; “the haters”, sometimes it requires strength to deal with them. Before getting rude and angry towards that shop assistant, we can pause and think; maybe he/she has been on their feet all day and have dealt with a lot of different customers, or maybe they haven’t had breakfast or lunch because of how busy it is. It’s good to pause for a moment to think of the other person. Most times, we realise how peaceful and less stressed we are at the end of the day when we live peaceably with others regardless of their instigations.

The story I have used may not be good enough for you but find any other examples and I’m sure empathy will still be important in our daily interactions. It may not just be for negative things but also positive. If your friend has just passed their driving test and they inform you, I’m sure you will be happy. But what if I told you some people make it their life’s mission to as we would call it; be the “joy killer”. Yes, some people for whatever reason cannot stand being around happy people! Whatever their reason, I do not know, maybe you can help me understand. The point is we should “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn”. As Paul puts it in Romans 12:15

Summary

empathy
Image by Clay Banks

In summary, how we see and approach a situation will determine our actions and whether we react positively or negatively. It pays to pause for a moment before responding or reacting. We have all being in situations where we regret how we reacted afterwards. We think, if we had just kept quiet or just paused to think before reacting, it would have been different. So maybe thinking of the other person isn’t so bad after all.  In fact, empathizing with others and being patient with them is also impactful on us.

Changing our perspective, thinking of the other person and pausing in the heat of the moment plays a big part in our daily interactions. Empathy allows us to react to situations in a much better and effective way that benefits both parties.

So, I’ll end with this; “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. Maybe the love we show might just be the best empathetic thing we do for someone today!

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