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Empathy begets empathy

The levels of understanding we have towards one another can vary from person to person, but it is a quality worth nurturing

Empathy is natural affinity, it is informal chemistry; empathy brings an intuitive and instinctive quality to social cognition. As empathy enables interpersonal connectivity the opposite end represents the human inability to connect with another. We live life in between these extremes.

Empathy occupies a big place in how we feel and how we expect to be treated by others. How empathetic we are can provide a clue to how much empathy we expect from the outside world, and vice versa. If we often feel unnoticed or unheeded it is arising from the capacity for affinity within us.

Empathy sounds conceptual yet manifests everyday — what do I see when I ground in your shoes? What changes when I align with your frame of reference? You would notice that both the questions offer a scope for active participation. Empathy, thus, is intentional and non-judgmental. Dissonance occurs when we choose to ignore these questions. What is also true is that some of us are born more empathetic than others.

Whether genetic, hormonal or intentional, being empathetic is invaluable to thrive as social beings.

This morning, as I strolled alongside a dog owner walking her dog in the common area, I saw the frisky dog wander across to where kids play every evening and commit what dogs do so well publicly — relieve himself by the hedge. This got me thinking of the enduring conflict between dog lovers and dog illiterates, how after generations of co-existence the two shall never meet. There is another category of illiterates — the child-agnost, who have a glaring lack of empathy for kids. Their aversion extends to the parents as being perpetrators of the unruliness that comes with the territory.

Assumptions

These are extreme polarities that exist and manifest as prejudice in communal living where one group has little understanding and patience for the other and their context. This often results in arguments and bad blood. This example of missing empathy is borne off deep, uninformed assumptions and a lack of will to understand each other. The pets and the children are the collateral in the above feud.

Lack of empathy manifests everywhere and to me, our increasingly automated life dulls the many opportunities to know, feel and practise empathy. Here is an instance. I belong to a generation that hand crafted cards and gifts for family and friends. We attended birthday parties unabashedly carrying crafted, hand sourced and rather simplistic gifts. The gifting decision, however, was languorous and thoughtful. The ritual of ideating a gift for an individual took us deep into empathy.

Cut to present times, as we focus on convenience in gifting and receiving gifts, there is a mushrooming of options — gift cards, gift checks, online transfers — as practical, convenient gifting that gives one freedom to choose their own gift. This however omits the many empathetic minutes spent on a gift idea, the bundle of warm emotions as someone excitedly unwraps a gift and the gratifying confirmation as a gift finds its rightful owner. For the generation that I belong to, gifting was a generative act that guided us into our capacity to empathise. With convenience taking center stage we are perhaps losing a recurring opportunity to empathise.

Generative

Empathy is generative. It generates a sense of well-being and safety and fosters connection. How do we, then, hone our empathetic instincts as automation, convenience, and self-absorption take over our choices and decisions?

Whoever you are, wherever you are placed in the generational timeline, dig your feet into the circumstance of the receiver of your words, action and gestures. As you do so, you can see the logic, reason and meaning of their action and choices. Quite naturally your response will be softer, creative, arising from a willingness to accept, rather than resist. While the gesture is towards someone, it will open up space within you to develop an empathetic nature. Finding occasions to personalise your social expressions, without outsourcing the small acts that require stepping into the other’s shoes, is a practice in empathy.

We all expect empathy from the person across and our experiences with un-empathetic people tell us how hurtful its absence is. Like any good habit worth nurturing we have to find every opportunity to switch context and cultivate this valuable capability.

The writer is a life coach, blogger and writer who simplifies the patterns and archetypes she encounters at work and in life. nivedita@lifealigncoaching.com

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 8:34:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/empathy-begets-empathy/article29307550.ece

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