You are a human, which means you are pretty much the same as every other person when you are first born. However, only you were born into your family and lived in your home and had your friends and your experiences growing up. Although we are all the same species, our experiences and circumstances make us each unique among all other humans. Someone who grew up in an area with lots of crime will prefer to lock the front door, someone who has never tried sushi might be disgusted by the idea of eating raw fish. Your experiences define who you are and how you see the world.
You also have the ability to gather information about people, like past experiences, to create characters. The more information you have synapsed to a character, the more accurate your version is to the real person. Your perspective is formed by your own experiences and you have the ability to know the experiences of another person. If you allocate your consciousness away from your past experiences and replace them with the experiences of another person, you’ll have the ability to see the world from their perspective; this is empathy.
Let’s give an example to clear up some possible confusion. Sammy is eleven years old and loves everything to do with outer space. His parents work a lot so he spends most of his time imagining he’s an astronaut with his friend, Mike. Sammy sent an application to go to space camp and an envelope arrived for him today.
You now have a bit of information on Sammy so you’ve created a character for him. I want you to take that information you’ve learned and replace your own experiences with his. Imagine you are Sammy and you are about to react to reading the letter. Run through the scenario of reading the word “Accepted.” Now run through the scenario of reading the word “Declined.” Regardless of whether you have ever applied for space camp, you are living through Sammy as you feel what he feels. Congratulations, you have just empathized.
Empathy is about better understanding why people do the things they do. It is about feeling what they feel based on their circumstance. It’s also not something you are going to be very good at immediately. It’s not a natural process to suppress your own solidified experiences and allocate the consciousness to another character, though it is definitely worth practicing.
Empathy is our greatest ability as humans and it is a central commandment in nearly every religion that has ever existed. We are all saying the same thing, though using different words. Buddhists say, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” while Muslims say, “Wish for your brother what you wish for yourself.” Empathy is found beyond religions, like the Golden Rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
I want to make an important clarification and to do it, we’ll make up two new people: Tom and Diane. Tom and Diane are going to try to empathize with each other. Tom thinks about every detail he knows about Diane’s life. When Tom replaces his experiences with Diane’s, he shouldn’t be Tom living in Diane’s world like Freaky Friday.
Tom’s own memories and experiences should be removed from his consciousness. That means he would make decisions like Diane and is limited to knowing only what she knows. Tom must be willing to suppress his own knowledge to get a sense of what it’s like to not understand something. This is one of the hardest things about teaching: remembering a time when you didn’t know what you know so well now.
Empathizing with others is not easy when you first start, it takes practice before it becomes automated. You can get better quickly as long as you make an effort to practice. The next time you pass someone on the sidewalk, think “Hey, I wonder how that person is seeing the world right now.” Every time you practice, the process will solidify and it will get easier to do.
It’s also fun to take on new personalities based on a character that you have created. You’ll want your characters to be more completed so that you can more accurately empathize in more situations. You can still empathize with incomplete characters, you just have know that you might be wrong.
Empathizing, in a way, is playing the part of a character that you made up who represents another person. I had a mentor who once told me, “The best days to act are the ones when you are feeling off, because then you don’t have to be you for a little bit.”
You have the ability to “become” someone else and feel the hope, wonder, and love they feel any time you choose. Go out and practice your empathy, you will certainly learn something about yourself in the process; after all, you’ll be seeing yourself from someone else’s point of view.