Many recent events have caused me to think a bit more deeply about empathy, and more specifically, on how, though the decline in empathy is increasingly concerning, we possess the ability to cultivate empathy and evolve as human beings.
Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings, which is not a simple immediate choice, but a consistent set of choices and deliberate effort to educate ourselves and look closer and beyond. In fact, it takes looking in the mirror.
One of the most startling and humbling experiences of my life has been to recognize that everyone is my mirror. This is even truer, and at times, more painful when it comes to our kids. The belief that everyone is your mirror may not seem like the most attractive belief; however, it is vital for all of your relationships, and a requirement for you to grow, as you see yourself as you truly are.
A close friend of mine once wrote this for me to share:
“I’ve been ate up with jealousy over someone. At my wits end with my own thoughts, I opened my notepad and wrote a letter to this person. Angrily scribbling all that infuriates me about this person, there was smoke rising from the pages! It felt GREAT to get all of it out of my head. At the end of this letter I chose to cross out this person’s name and replace it with mine…and I read those words of hatred directed towards myself.
Next, I wrote to someone I admire and appreciate. The words of beauty flowed as easily as the previous letter’s words of negativity. I smiled as I expressed my gratitude to this person for being who they are and how they show me who I wish to be. Then, I crossed out their name and replaced it with mine…and I read those words of positivity directed towards myself. I wept.”
I experimented with this exercise with my own “Dear Elayna letter” and the results were very similar. Because we are interconnected, the people around us are reflecting our consciousness back to wake us up to the reality of who we truly are. When Gandhi said “Be The Change You Wish To See In The World,” he was perhaps letting us know that the qualities we most admire and most despise in others are truly our own, and as we transform, we see the world differently.
Everyone is my teacher and those who cross my path are a perfect mirror of my inner relationship with myself, my beliefs, my qualities, and my actions. Only to the extent that something is part of my consciousness, I will be able to recognize it in another human.
It is not easy to admit that everything and everyone around me is a mirror. There is no longer room for blame, judgment, or victimization – and, interestingly enough, by releasing my attachment to those thoughts, I also release my suffering. And with the awareness, understanding, and compassion, I gain a sense of personal power, gratitude, and reverence.
I know it sounds illogical but the more I think about those whom I once deemed my enemies, I see as allies in my own transformation, and the more I inquire about the thoughts I believed about them, the more I have been humbled by my own judgment and lack of empathy: I have a great sense of empathy to some conditions and situations because I have been through much and can relate to many… but what about the others? Do I really need to walk in your shoes to generate the compassion you crave from me?
I’ve decided to become more mindful and aware, and to go back to the basics: treat others as you would like to be treated… The Golden Rule. It’s that simple… and yet, I fail so often and so easily. My resolve is not to be perfect in this principle, but to be a bit better each day, because progress is success.
Empathy, as defined in the dictionary, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” not to know exactly what they are going through, but to be concerned answering WHY.
When Jesus said to His followers they “must become like a child,” I’m sure being curious was a big factor in this statement. In my research and my own experience, I’ve found that being curious about other people is an empathy booster. These wise little beings ask WHY until you run out of ideas… and that is how they learn about the world around them.
Being inquisitive, curious, and interested can boost our empathy levels. I once heard someone say that we would not judge anyone if we knew their whole story. Knowing someone’s journey can help us avoid judgment, detachment, or apathy regarding the pain of others, let alone find it amusing, entertaining, or worthy of share.
I started to think about that person who is “impossible to get along with” because she pushes the right buttons at the right time, yet someone else seems to have no issues getting along with her. By taking a look at why she has this effect on me, I’ve been able to make my weaknesses stronger, and improve my undeveloped, unresolved, deficiencies.
What annoys you, frustrates you, upsets you, and makes you feel disrespected, not valued, or unloved, is often something you also do, but don’t own or acknowledge. For example, if you receive criticism that hurts your feelings, it can be because you are critical of yourself, the critic him/herself, or another person or group.
How can this be? The Law of Polarity states that there is opposition in everything and that “opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree“.
A really good example in my own life is when I was in a relationship with a man who many would label a narcissist, and in which I was sorely abused emotionally, sexually, physically, and even exploited financially. I did not act toward him as he acted toward me, however, my actions of allowing this behavior came from the very same place his behavior came: insecurity and lack of self-worth; we simply expressed it differently – in opposite ways, if you will.
For Taylor Bare and I, our opposites actually help us balance each other, because our attraction is values-based, rather than the offspring of an unhealthy self-perception.
With empathy comes understanding, kindness, and compassion. With empathy comes forgiveness, because as we take a closer, more accurate look at who we truly are, we are willing to GIVE our judgment FOR understanding and compassion toward another.
As we own up to our qualities, expand our awareness, and realize the only person we can transform is ourselves, we can see people in a more positive light. When it is really difficult, we can harness the tools of “the mirror theory,” The Golden Rule, and being curious, to look inwards, and generate the empathy that will free us from pain and suffering.
How do you cultivate empathy in your own life? I want to learn from you, so leave a comment below!