By: Ethan Rampersaud
Photo Credit: Creative Commons
Empathy has arguably become a relatively recent feeling in human history, when compared to the archaic ones such as guilt, sadness or anger. The reason for this is because before others, the person who comes first in life is ourselves. We are the easiest person to understand from our perspective, since we know what makes us tick, our preferences, our beliefs, and what we’ve come through as individuals. Therefore, it is only natural that we have seen ourselves first in our history rather than the bigger picture, the group picture, the world picture. However, what does it truly mean to empathize with someone?
To put simply, when we empathize with someone, we try to observe their situation through their perspective. The sociological concept of Verstehen, as created by Max Weber, helps illustrate the concept by allowing us to understand the thoughts and motivations that are behind the actions individuals take. It provides us a deeper understanding of the studied individual and helps us connect to them in an intimate way, a much more effective strategy than by simply evaluating them based on their external behaviors and actions.
While sympathy is similar, both etymologically and definitively, it is not the exact same as empathy. When someone is sympathetic to another, they express a sentiment of care and understanding much like empathy. However, the difference lies in the depth. Sympathy is relatively shallow, with one individual trying to simply understand and be flexible with the characteristics and personality of another. Empathy travels deeper, beyond the conscious actions and to the subconscious motives and thoughts that influence what they do. By knowing said motives, we can attempt to shift our perspective to theirs and synthesize an accurate interpretation of events as the observed individuals see them, not just as society or us individuals see them.
How can this idea be applied to society today? Simple. By looking past the evident thoughts and actions we observe from our perspective, our judgement, we can shift the perspective from us to individuals, and understand ways to help them and benefit them while also benefiting society at the same time. Furthermore, by applying this in a historical method, we can observe the multiple viewpoints found from multiple sides of events, not just a handful of skewed, biased interpretations from a couple of sources serving as “fact”. Finally, it can improve ourselves, students, teachers and staff alike, by learning from the observations of individual perspectives and finding solutions to help provide students with the greatest potential to succeed. This is why empathy is needed for a mindful and successful society. Not only does it bring individuals up, but it uplifts our ever evolving society to a higher level than ever before.