Sunday, March 25, 2018

Empathy. Compassion. Kindness.

Earlier this week, the first day of Spring, I took a snow day from work. And being at home in peace in quiet gives me time to catch up on some thinking. I was taken to examine the difference between some basic human concepts, and how we desperately need more in our would.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Kindness: the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.

Can one feel compassion without empathy, or vice versa? A high level of empathy can feel like absorbing another person’s pain, and can potentially cause one to turn away without compassionate action. Compassion, on the other hand, doesn't require us to really understand or feel the emotions of another, only that we care and usually act on it. Kindness can be something we can practice even when we feel neither empathy nor compassion. Christians are called to be compassionate & kind, whether we empathize or not, but I believe that having a good level of compassion and empathy—not just kindness—can make us a more altruistic society, seeking peaceful but meaningful balances.

In a world of social media & electronic communication, we can learn so much more about the world around us, and to understand the lives & societies of others. The other side of that coin is our inability to hear the tones, see the facial expressions and body language of the person behind the keyboard, and that so often leaves us without empathy or compassion for them.
Empathy is an elastic thing. The empathy center of our brain, the amygdala, has the capacity to grow—and the capacity to shrink. If we are not actively trying to empathize, to understand someone else's story, point of view, or pain, then our capacity to empathize, and possibly the capacity to have compassion, also diminishes. That's a dangerous place for a society, and a place that I feel (through my sometimes overly-active amygdala!!) our society and communities may be reaching, if they haven’t already.

Being highly empathetic can have drawbacks—it can be painful, it's hard to create good boundaries, and it's hard to confront others (not because we don't like consequences but because we are highly sensitive to how we might hurt someone), and I am glad for those around me that can help me sometimes recognize when a high level of empathy stands in the way of an appropriate action. But if I had to choose having too high empathy versus none at all, every time I choose the inconvenient, messy, sometimes overly passionate, sometimes painful empathy.

For us as leaders, parents, teachers, we need to be developing & nurturing empathy in ourselves and in our children, students, and those we mentor. Empathy, kindness and compassion are vital all on their own, but I believe that empathy, kindness & compassion combined is what we need for changing our world for the better.
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