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Empathy 101 & Adam Braverman

1 Comment 22 September 2010

Just read a post on Blogher about a mom who receives welfare.  She is a single mom with two kids and she works full-time.  She found herself in a quandary when she read a ‘friend’s’ Facebook comment that people on welfare should not have cell phones.  Wow…really?  It was a very interesting article and I have no desire to take up a debate about welfare and cell phone ownership, but I think it points out a basic human flaw.  We suck at empathy!

What exactly is empathy?  The official definition:

the intellectual identification with or vicarious experienceing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

It is the experience of ‘suffering with’ someone as you contemplate where they are, how they feel and imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes.

Last night as I flipped channels I caught two scenes of the new show Parenthood.  In both scenes, the eldest brother of the show, Adam Braverman, is in the position of dolling out advice to those in need.  In the first scene there is a man, who is obviously a close friend, attempting to seek empathy from Adam as he laments the demise of his marriage.  Adam’s response…”I wouldn’t know how that feels because I would never be in your shoes.”  Again, in the second scene Adam is counseling his younger brother Crosby on his problems with his son (whom he was just recently introduced to by his ex-girlfriend).  As Crosby asks Adam, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”, Adam quips back, “I would never be in your shoes.”  [I am taking liberty with Adam’s answers as I can not quote exactly what his character said, but you get the gist!]

So, what keeps Adam from empathy?  What keeps us from empathy?  Pride.  We are all Adam Braverman about something.  We see ourselves as superior.  We think too highly of ourselves.  We can pass judgement and communicate opinions because we know that we would ‘never be in those shoes.’  That is what keeps us from empathy.  I do it, you do it, we all do it.

We fail to empathize because we fail to associate with that person.  We don’t see ourselves when we see their circumstance.

So what makes us better at empathy?  Pain.  Suffering.  Humiliation.  Being misunderstood.  Hardship.  Grief.  All the things that we spend our entire lives trying to avoid, once we come face to face with them, make us better human beings.  These things equalize us, they humble us and they remind us that we are all broken and living in a broken world.  These things cause us to see things and people differently.  They connect us to the human race, the human race that is flawed, suffering and in pain.  Our vision of ourselves, once we are toppled from our pedestal, is far more gracious than when we remain up top.

I want to be better at ‘suffering with’ people.  Not just those that I find it easy to love and those that I know, but those that I am tempted to define with little or no information.  When I see the girl in the check-out line with ‘designer clothes’ and she has an iPhone and then pays with her WIC card…I want to see her first and foremost as a human being.  In order for that to happen, I must constantly constantly adjust my view of myself.  Why?  Because that girl could be me.

Are you empathetic?  I know I am not, far too often, but I want to be.  I want to practice imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. And I want to do that because I know first hand what it feels like to be on the receiving end.  And just in case you don’t…it stinks.

** Note – I have just been notified by my friend Abby that I took those two statements from Adam Braverman and took them out of context!  Oops!  Sounds like he is a very empathetic guy!  But I told her that I was glad I saw them in a disconnected way because the words themselves, along with the situations caused me to write about empathy!  So tomorrow, I will write about ‘misunderstanding adam braverman!’

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1 comment

  1. Jorja says:

    judy,
    i hear what you are saying about empathy, however, i think we empathize, or can empathize even when we haven’t had a similar experience. i think sometimes it is easier, because of our life experience, however, i would be an advocate of actively using one’s imagination to consider what their plight might be like; this calls us to draw on any experience we have had that might induce the same feelings. i think we all have known pain, to some degree, loss to some degree, and have some grasp of the fact that things aren’t as they should be. i think this allows us to move beyond the intellectual and to the heart. either way, your comment, as usual, is lovely.


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things to make you wonder~

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I've come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them...” Annie Dillard

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