There is no time like the present to practice empathy. Social injustice and death runs rampant in the streets and the number of homelessness camps is on the rise while Covid cases soar to new heights. Now is not the time to become desensitized and turn a blind eye, but rather to flex the atrophied muscle of empathy and be moved to bring about change.
Empathy is feeling “as” others, while sympathy is feeling “for” others. As a Black woman raised around other Black women (my family), I learned that it takes a village to raise a child. My mom could leave me in their care knowing that I was well cared for. Being around them in public spaces, I watched how they would become alert when children were separated from their parents and how they herded them back to them, or stood guard as the parent approached. I didn’t fully understand it then, but this was empathy. Their attentiveness and protectiveness is something that I have adopted and carried with me from youth into adulthood. It is a mother’s greatest fear to lose a child, a pain I can only imagine, so when I see an unattended child, I immediately empathize so I wait to see where their mother is and I make sure the child is safely returned. When I see strangers in need of help, I offer help. This is empathy and this is a major difference between the Black and White community. More specifically, the privileged vs the underprivileged. An example of this would be publicized mugshots of Black suspects vs. White suspects and the racial bias in the portrayal of Black victims vs. White victims.
The slander knows no end. Most people will view this tweet with sympathy, and say, “That is so unfair!”, which is an appropriate sympathetic response that allows us to stay removed from the situation. Empathy, however, drives you to take corrective action like calling local news stations to call them out on their bias when they run those ridiculous headlines. By addressing thes title specific issues, we are in no way undercutting the seriousness of their crimes, but we are calling for justice and equity in the portrayal of criminals across the board. Empathy is both a gift and a skill set that must be developed. When underdeveloped, we wind up with generations of privileged people refusing to take accountability of their actions. The accuser of Emmett Till didn’t confess to her lie until decades after his murder. The entire Black community knew her story was a lie, but when she finally told the truth, it was too late. It’s the same with the 1989 Central Park 5 accuser. The Black men, who were the true victims in both instances, weren’t exonerated until years after their wrongful convictions. I believe these things happened because neither woman took the time to think how her words and actions would affect the lives of those accused and the community surrounding them. They didn’t consider how it might be in their position when they lied on them because they lacked empathy.
“Empathy is more active than sympathy. It requires more intellectual development.”, says actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith in her book letters to a young artist. It raises questions within me about the inefficiencies in the childhood development of the privileged: Were life lessons about empathy skipped or ignorantly ignored? and How can someone teach about something they don’t know? They can’t, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be constantly re-educating themselves about emotional and intellectual maturity. “Stepping outside gives you the space to watch, listen, feel. To step outside you must suspend opinions and judgments. It doesn’t mean you are devoid of them. It means that you have control long enough to watch, listen, and feel. You store what you have learned and do what you will with the information you have gathered. You may even try to influence how others watch, listen, and feel. But first you must step outside.”
Ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse for a lack of empathy. There are far too many resources available in the library and on the internet. We even have untapped wells of knowledge and experience within our own sphere of influence to reach out to. On my mom’s side, my great great grandmother was one generation out of slavery and my grandmother was born during the time of sharecropping. I am constantly asking questions to gain insight to my community so I can learn how to best help them. It is our responsibility to ourselves and to our communities to educate ourselves on how to be the best version of ourselves. This self-work not only betters us as individuals, it impacts the lives of those around us. It inspires and lights a pathway to emotional maturity for others to follow.
In an article, “Emotional Maturity: What it Looks Like“, written by Cindy Lamothe, she summarizes emotional maturity as a need to become more self-aware of one’s worth as well as the worth of those around us to truly lead a happier and more fulfilling life. She informs us to apologize to those around us when we are wrong and admit when we need help, while continually seeking ways to grow on a personal level. We are in control of our emotional journey to maturity and we have the power to make more mature choices day by day. I, however, want to take that a bit further. There are so many moments throughout our day bursting with opportunities for empathy. We may fail in some moments, but there are 24 hours in a day, to get it right. Use them wisely.