Empathy is an ability to recognize the emotions of others. Training videos often show that one accepts the other person’s emotional state and does not “fix” it.
So if someone is crying and upset, you may just sit with that person quietly, or offer a hug.
But it is not always easy to determine when we should we show empathy, and when should try to fix something.
When I think of empathy on a personal level, I consider that it should be that shoulder to cry on, but when I hear of social ills, I often think that just listening to the problem is not enough. When someone mistreats someone else, I think we should call that mistreatment out and let the perpetrator know that those words or actions are unacceptable.
Again, in these situations, it is hard to determine when to speak up and when to mind one’s own business.
In some cases, if I say something, I could be considered nosey or trying to be a savior when no one asked me to step up and save anyone.
These situations are not always easy to navigate for anyone, and they are often influenced by numerous factors, including one’s current mission (to get to work on time), fear, time of day, location of the situation, weather, and so on.
However, I would like to think that we each imagine scenarios in our minds of how and when we would help someone. We have to learn to assess and discern when to keep moving and when to stop and step up to help someone.
When we take this to a national and international level, the stakes become higher. Money becomes an even bigger factor.
Recently, I watched the documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” on Frontline, about the 1994 genocide of Tustis, and I was reminded once again of how we, as a nation, become or do not become involved in helping people in other nations.
We have two minds it seems — those who want to reach out and help, and those who will only reach out and help if there is something in return to benefit us.
But isn’t this dichotomy also true of us as individuals? Some people will do for others and help others without a need or desire for something in return, and others expect something in return?
I think we all have found ourselves somewhere on this spectrum. The thing is that as I get older, I am less and less willing to help without conditions — meaning that at one time, I just helped people without wanting or requiring anything in return. But now, I am more sensitive, because I do not want to be taken advantage of. However, applying conditions to my help makes me feel like I am making someone beholden to me, so I sometimes choose not to help at all. No matter which way I go, I feel guilty, and that is just no way to be either.
How do you navigate empathy and commitment to others? How do we want empathy and help to play out in our personal lives, our communities and between our countries?
Does each choice depend entirely on the circumstances, the level of trust, the people involved?
I think when I was younger, I had an answer to these questions, and that answer was grounded in my lack of experience and boundless energy.
As we age, do we really lose patience, and does this raise expectations? Are we too soft or too hard on one another?
Maybe we will never be able to answer these questions definitely, but it is important to ask the questions, consider possible answers and discuss what we think with each other. If for no other reason than to at least accept and come to terms with our own choices regardless of the consequences and outcomes.