The Intangibility of Empathy
Empathy is universally defined and readily accepted as the ability to understand and to share the feelings of another person. Few of us would argue with the proposition that the mentally and emotionally competent among us desire to be genuinely understood and to know that another person can share our feelings.
Empathy is something which is intangible because it is felt. When we truly empathise we are not left feeling empty, or to frame it differently, left emotionless. It can sometimes mean that we are more able to empathise with some people over others. The idea that we can adopt a position of neutrality on this subject and not be judgmental is an attractive and noble one and yet it can equally be fallacious and untenable.
We all have judgments, whether or not we articulate those judgments through our words or through our actions is another story. To suspend our judgments and to exercise our empathy is one of the higher expressions of our beautiful humanity.
Our ability to express sentiments and to feel empathy for other people is not much of an obstacle when we can rely upon mutually shared experiences or we can identify in some manner. Shared identities and experiences often become the powerful triggers which manifest our ability to express our empathy. Paradoxically, the things which we identify with can also be the reason why we may struggle to elicit or to gain empathy from others. Having shared characteristics such as a common core culture, sharing the same gender, age, race, religion, ideological or spiritual beliefs, social standing, economic position, education and work experiences; are factors which can potentially either enhance or diminish our capacity to empathise with others.
An illustration of this can be easily located within the space of political advocacy. Political activism at its heart is an authentic desire to propagate change within governmental and legal institutions. Activists unite for a particular cause with the express intention to seek to reform or improve established practices which fail to represent and support the needs of particular communities. A refugee activist for instance, is less likely to empathise with an activist who supports restrictive immigration policies. This is chiefly due to fundamentally divergent beliefs. However, even within communities which are diametrically not in alignment, or are in direct opposition even, there can be similar beliefs which are shared; such as the shared desire to live in a politically and militarily stable country.
Our ability and willingness to understand and to feel what other people experience depends on how well we are able to imagine what it would be like if it was our very own self who was placed in that other person’s situation. And the more we are willing to do that; to think of what it would be like if “we” were “them”, the more accessible an intangible experience such as empathy can come into being.