How Radical Empathy Can Change the World

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A different set of eyes

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
— Henry David Thoreau

Way deep down, in one of our jumbled bins of toys, lays a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses with the words “Happy Birthday” emblazoned across the top. Every once in a while, we will pull the sunglasses out (never on someone’s birthday, of course) and take turns putting them on. The color of the lenses isn’t anything dramatic, just a pale yellow hue, but the transformation that takes place once the glasses are slipped on is absolutely remarkable. The ordinary suddenly looks strangely unrecognizable, under a phosphorescent glow, and it is hard to imagine what things had looked like without the yellow birthday glasses to filter the view.

The glasses soften and brighten everything, giving the tangible an almost ethereal feel. With the glasses on, the world seems a little less harsh but more ambiguous, warmer but more perplexing. It is almost – almost – like looking through another person’s eyes, for the briefest moment. And could there be a more transformative and powerful experience than to see things from inside the heart, mind, and soul of another person?

Tinted glasses must be getting harder and harder to find because it seems like empathy is a vanishing art. Judgment and criticism, blame and condemnation are brandished about with abandon, sometimes covertly lurking in dark corners and other times wielded wildly like a sword.

Judgment and criticism like to masquerade as advice and opinions, but make no mistake they are very different. Advice and differences of opinion should be welcomed, encouraged, and greeted with an open heart and a curious mind. The advice of a trusted friend, guidance from a respected mentor, and the opinions of someone with particular skill or expertise are utterly invaluable, and I will seek them out at every chance. But judgment and criticism? Well, those things just seem to make everyone feel a little icky.

But what would happen if, instead of rushing to rash judgments and unfounded criticism, we tried to really see and feel things from another person’s perspective?

As a parent, I am no stranger to judgment and criticism. I have been disparaged by a little old grandma in Old Navy for letting my son carry a giant white teddy bear around the store. I have been judged by peering eyes at the library while my son runs up and down the aisles screaming. I have been silently judged too many times to count by everyone from family members to teachers to strangers on the street. And I have chastised myself with a seemingly endless stream of doubts and second-guesses.

The latest person to offer parenting judgment and criticism advice is Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. In his recent column “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Battle Hymn,” Mr. Bruni shares his confusion with modern parents, essentially advising today’s parents to just chill the f*** out. While the crux of Mr. Bruni’s column may, in fact, be one of comfort – basically that parents should cut themselves some slack, acknowledge that they “don’t hold all or even most of the cards” and let nature take its course – he reaches this conclusion through a series of put-downs, criticisms, and judgments, all despite the fact that Mr. Bruni is not a parent himself.

In the article, Mr. Bruni condemns parents for everything from doling out excessive praise, offering too many choices, helicoptering, issuing false threats, and letting kids have iPhones. But even were his role as uncle to 11 nieces and nephews enough to qualify him as a parenting expert, he is still just witness to a tiny blip on the radar screen. He cannot know what goes on in their homes at night, nor can he know the unique challenges that each family is facing – because no one can know these things.

We cannot know the personal demons that another person is wrestling with. We cannot know the true nature of the cards another person has been dealt. We cannot know what it is like see the world through another person’s eyes, to know the world from another person’s mind, to feel the world with another person’s fingers. But with empathy – with radical empathy – we just might get a glimpse. Like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch said in “To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Imagine what our life might look like if, instead of judging, we asked the tough questions; if, instead of pointing our finger, we examined our own role; if instead of blaming, we listened; if, instead of responding in anger, we offered sympathy and understanding.

Imagine what society might look like if we respected all love, and examined the nature of our own marriages, before we condemned the loves of others. What our workplaces might look like if, instead of blaming seemingly lazy co-workers, we considered the possible internal conflicts that they may be suffering and offered our assistance. How our moods might be altered if, instead of dropping F-bombs at the driver who cut us off, we prayed that the driver’s distracted mind might be eased. How our communities might look if, instead of judging the mom who placates her kids with lollipops while shopping in Target or snaps too harshly, we looked her in the eye and said “I know it’s tough. Let me carry your bags to your car.”

Imagine what our families might look like if, as we bumped elbows with one another, we mustered up the courage to really know each other, gritty warts and all. What our relationships might look like if, instead of withdrawing from the ugliness, we sunk down into it armed with radical empathy.

Imagine what our own souls might look like if we let down our walls, accepted our conflicting emotions, and embraced the messiness of life. What the world might look like if instead of looking at each other, we looked within each other so that we could see beyond the neatly packaged exteriors, with our juicy and messy interiors laid bare and exposed.

Criticism and judgment are natural human responses to dealing with what goes on around us. Empathy – radical empathy – is hard work and we sometimes sell ourselves short. We treat our souls like fragile statues that need to be protected. We secretly fear that our minds are incapable of handling a messy, convoluted, muddled mess of conflicting viewpoints and alternative perspectives. We tell ourselves that our hearts’ flexibility is finite, at risk of snapping like a rubber band if stretched too far with all the sorrow, bewilderment, and ecstasy that lies within the collective psyche.

But our souls are strong, so much stronger than we ever thought possible. Our hearts are competent enough to navigate the chaotic maze of ideas and perspectives. Our hearts are infinitely pliable, begging to be stretched to the brink with the full array of human emotion.

So I will grant Mr. Bruni the benefit of the doubt. I can certainly sympathize with his frustration and confusion at modern day parenting. As a parent myself, I am utterly confused most of the time, completely ill-prepared to live up to the multitude of conflicting expectations swirling around. It is hard, so freaking hard, to know what to do…well, just about all of the time. I am scared, intimidated, frightened, and in awe of these tiny little human beings whose lives I am responsible for shaping. I am exhausted just about every minute of every single day and, unfortunately, my parenting skills sometimes suffer as a result.

We are all just doing the best that we can with the hand we’ve been dealt. Mr. Bruni is doing the same. Perhaps he was feeling particularly frustrated when he wrote his article. Or maybe he was exhausted and late for his column’s deadline. Whatever the reason, instead of judging Mr. Bruni, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, just as I hope he would do for me. I will try to imagine the challenges that he must be facing. I will assume that he wrote with only the very best intentions. I will grant him radical empathy.

Because, quite frankly, I’ve seen enough judgment and criticism to last me a lifetime. And, when you get down to it, empathy just might be the greatest gift one person could ever give another. Empathy just might be the only thing that ever really mattered. Empathy – radical empathy – just might be what saves us.  

It really is hard not to smile wearing these glasses
They really are great sunglasses, aren’t they?

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3 Comments

  • It is so difficult to try and stand in another’s shoes because we are so busy digging in the heels of our own. We try so desperately to defend our actions and opinions that we cant’ often hear what others are saying. We just need to be right and in turn we need them to be wrong. But if we stop and think about how someone came to their opinion and thought about how they see the world, we might learn a little something. Sure, in the end, we’ll still have our beliefs, but empathy doesn’t have to mean we come to someone ele’s side, it simply means we listen and understand.
    Beautifully written!
    Vicky
    http://www.thepursuitofnormal.blogspot.com
    ThePursuitOfNormal recently posted…I’m an excellent driverMy Profile

  • Very nice post – thank you! The world would indeed be a better place if we could just slip on a pair of tinted glasses at times, and give more benefit of the doubt to our fellow humans. One of my favorite phrases to put in a covenant of right relations when I’m teaching a class or leading a small group is “Assume Good Intentions”. In other words, even if someone really puts their foot in their mouth, assume they meant well and weren’t trying to be mean or put you down. It just helps if we give that benefit of the doubt to others.

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