The gift of empathy


We often say we would like to help other people, make a difference and change the world. We set these ambitious goals for ourselves and our work. It’s a common saying that we live troubling, challenging and complicated times. But I’ve been asking myself how much of my daily life is really difficult and what is the percentage that I’ve been making complicated myself.

What is it absolutely necessary and non-negotiable to start changing the world, I ask? I think the answer is, without a doubt, empathy. There is no way we can be aware of other’s people reality and suffering, if we don’t, in someway, understand in our hearts what they are going through, if put it more plainly, if we don’t walk in their shoes.

True empathy is becoming a rarity in the world and increasingly underrated. There are a lot of possible explanations for that including being raised to have an individualistic mentality, the cult of the self-made man and the mind your own business attitude, where we are encouraged to only care about ourselves and not take a lot around in our social groups, our communities and what they might need from us. Because great or small, we can all play a part and give a contribute to improve the unfair situations around us. Our voice matters.

We are also raised to seek instant gratification, to avoid obstacles and disappointments. Anything that doesn’t offer guarantees, that takes a lot of effort to gain traction, that demands a big input from us before we can say it paid of, all of that is easily pushed aside. We live in a time of immediacy, where we want things right here and right now, we don’t want to delay pleasure in the least, the ultimate dream seems to fame, fortune as fast as possible and looking good doing so. Alongside this rush to be productive and get results, we refuse to age, we admire youthful looking people and we sweep death, an irreversible part of the human condition, under the carpet.

So what does all has to do with empathy? Well, when we treat everything like a race and not a marathon, when we go through the motions like hamsters on a wheel, something has got to give, something is left behind. We enter a sort of survival only mode and we forget about other relevant parts of being apart. We don’t care for others and we are often disconnected from our emotions. And if we don’t know ourselves and what drives us personally, how can we access other people’s states of minds and understand what they are facing? It’s an impossible task.

When I am closer to the core of who I am, I’m more in tune with my perceptions and desires, I can follow my intuition and have a simpler general outlook in life. I’m clear about my feelings and that makes me have a more accurate awareness of other people’s feelings as well because I’m more connected to what is going on, inner and outside of me.

Empathy is visceral, something you can’t deny once you are overcome with it. It’s emotional, it’s cognitive, it’s compassionate. There’s no true compassion without empathy. It’s such a broad concept that it can be hard to define and easy to get tangled with similar but different ones. What we need to know for sure is that in a world that is more self-servicing than not, that tells us to ignore the sorrow  of those next to you, to not be numb is truly remarkable.

That is not to say a empath doesn’t have to be careful and protective sometimes. We should, otherwise our wellbeing will always be at risk. But self-care shouldn’t be an excuse for indifference, for lack of the right information, for prejudice, for stereotyping, for hatred.

We all have a baggage that we carry in our life, a gamut of pain, that like a kaleidoscope, only we know the colors of. In a way, each unpleasant experience can be a blessing in disguise because it will sharpen our sense of right and wrong, our sensibility and increase our empathy when we see someone in similar situations whether it is poverty, bullying, racism, body shaming, you name it.

So, in hindsight there’s a silver lining to feeling in all, to not shut down being sensible. It makes us who we are. Then, filtering everything we got on our plate, we can like the popular saying goes, develop from the negatives and grow. We can’t possibly be incredibly happy all the time, life is made of dualities and to energy there’s rest and to a smile a tear (happy tears, sometimes, if we are lucky).

When we embrace everything this existence has to offer us, we become more than empathic people. We become better listeners, better friends, better partners, better humans.

Paula Gouveia


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