The Power of Empathy

Liz LottmannHave you heard the expression, “That person lives in a bubble”? I’ve said it myself. When I say it, I’m often not sure if I’m making an excuse for them, or if I’m wishing they would open themselves up to the power of empathy.

Does having empathy make a person weak? I absolutely don’t think so. Perhaps sympathy does sometimes. I’ve discovered I can detect a difference between empathy and sympathy. When I’m sympathizing with someone, I “feel their pain”, but I’m cautious about offering help, for the many reasons that experience has taught me. So when I’m feeling that indecision, I can detect it as being sympathy.

But empathy is very different. Empathy makes me feel like I’m about to do something powerful and meaningful. It makes me see both the good and the bad in the world, without being judgmental, and I’m able to clearly see whether there’s something I can do that’s productive and important.

Sympathy mires me in self-doubt and caution; empathy gears me up for action.

People who act on empathy are sometimes those who make magnificent change in the world. Would Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur have experimented with vaccines and milk sterilization without their empathic worldviews? Could St. Francis of Assisi have inspired empathy in others without exchanging places with a beggar? Could Beatrice Webb, the founder of the London School of Economics, have ever made such an impact on poverty and sweatshops without personally experiencing intolerable factory conditions? Could Gandhi have maintained his peaceful movement for Indian Independence without teaching his followers to empathize with their adversaries?

Well, no one I know (and certainly not myself) is a social warrior in the same class as Assisi, Jenner, Pasteur, Webb and Gandhi! But I’ve drawn lessons from reading about people such as these. And I try to associate myself in work and life with people who are warriors in their own ways. I feel I’m in good company at Oliver Law Firm, for example, when successful cases for our clients have resulted in social justice for others. And I’m blessed to have a musical talent that puts me in front of an audience where I can pass along social awareness in song.

Empathy expands my own worldview and jumpstarts my imagination. Most of us, at one time or another, feel the desire to make a change in the world. But how do we make the time for that? For me, thanks to my work and my music, I do have some outlets. I hope someday to know my empathy caused me to make my mark. Empathy is, to me, what being human is all about.