Seeking empathy

I watched an interview a couple of days ago that touched me. It was an interview of a celebrity who is an immigrant and how that experience shaped her life and helped her become who she is today. It was one statement she made that really touched me and got me thinking.  She said,  “Just because you are physically the centre of your experiences does not mean that there are no other experiences that do not centre on you”. It got me thinking about empathy and how important it can be in helping us become better humans, better neighbours. Empathy is the capacity to understand the feelings,  emotions and thoughts of others. It involves putting ourselves in their shoes even without physically experiencing those things. It can be illustrated in a little girl whose doll lost its arm and who then starts crying. The little girl takes the doll to her mother who is working on a deadline on her computer.  To the mother,  the doll is inconsequential but to the little girl,  the doll is just as important as the mother’s job. It takes empathy for the mother to leave her deadline for a few minutes,  listen to the child and solve that problem by fixing the doll’s arms. Like my mother always says the world would be a much better place if we all had a little more empathy.

Empathy would mean not only recognising that not every experience that does not involve us is false but also realising that those experiences could be just as valid and just as important. The world is such a diverse place with multifaceted cultures and values.  Nigeria is not left out, with over a hundred cultural groups with diverse languages, empathy is especially important. Empathy would mean recognising that being a Yoruba man with cultural experiences that colour your perception does not mean that the Hausa or Igbo man whose cultural experiences differ from yours is any lesser than you. It would mean recognising that those with a different perspective from the standard that you are familiar with are not any lesser.  No one experience should be the normative standard but rather we all should recognise the varied experiences that we all go through and appreciate our diversity. I remember reading a post on Twitter.

Nigerian system lacks diversity in appointments ― Catholic bishops

Someone had complained about the culture of referring to young girls as “our wife” and how that had resulted in a lot of abuse against the children, yet someone else replied that we were becoming too sensitive and that she did not experience any of that even while undergoing the culture complained about and so concluding that argument was not valid.  I realised in that moment just how far empathy could go. If the second person had realised that her experience might not be the norm,  she would have been kinder in her response and she would have got her point across in a more understanding manner and way. Empathy helps us to see others as equal partners in life and to view our privilege not as an entitlement but rather as a gift. A gift that should never be forgotten. Empathy makes us more gracious,  more giving,  more loving and more human.

However, empathy is slowly becoming a lost emotion.  In a me first world, with more people feeling less concern for the needs and feelings of others,  empathy has become a rarity.  Yet research has shown that empathy is a learned behaviour.  The people who grow up without empathy are not missing not being born with it, rather they have not being taught to be. And what better way to learn than to put into practice? It therefore means that as parents,  guardians and elders, it is on us to teach the next generation to show empathy and the best way to do this is to show empathy ourselves. Realising that empathy is not inherent helps us be more accountable as individuals.  It keeps us on our toes as we constantly check ourselves to see if we are not judging others through our own experiences and journey. The fact that we have to learn empathy means that it is not going to come easy, it will require conditioning ourselves,  examining our motives, examining our actions and  if needed correcting ourselves constantly until empathy becomes an easier response,  until it becomes a part of us.

In a country divided along ethnic lines,  along religious lines and faced with impending financial crisis and violence, empathy would not solve our problems but it would be a start. It would help us embrace our neighbours rather than suspect them for speaking a different language. It would mean that we try to understand the culture of other ethnicities without losing our own.  It would mean finding peace and tolerance in the rights of others to choose their own religion. It would mean realising that just because you can afford something does not mean everyone else can and recognising that that in itself is okay. It would mean reaching out to those we know are depressed without condescendingly looking down on their weaknesses, but understanding and feeling their pain enough to try to be their strength. It would mean not destroying things in anger just because others did the same but rather understanding the root of the problem and taking action that would calm the raging fire. Empathy would mean celebrating and appreciating experiences that do not centre us and recognising that those experiences are just as valid. And we must come to the realisation that empathy does not start collectively at first,  it starts with each individual, it starts with you and me.

  • Wale-Olaitan is of the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
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