When Empathy Fails

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. I think it’s often one of those words we bat around, but don’t really dig into it’s meaning or implications.

Taking a page from “love is a verb not a feeling,” I’ve been trying to develop a framework for empathy as a practice — something I do, rather than something I spontaneously feel.

Relying on my own lived experience to breed instinctual empathy is limited at best. My privilege and my mortality mean that empathy often fails the further away someone’s lived experiences are from my own. So, how do I develop empathy beyond the reach of my own experience and understanding?

For example, as someone who has experienced the grief of losing people I love, I find that I can easily honor and respect the pain of others who experience similar loss. No, I’ve never lost a child or a spouse. I make no claims to having a perfect understanding of those types of loss. But, I can easily extend my own understanding to recognize, validate, honor and acknowledge the pain those types of losses cause because it is, at the very least, proximate to my own.

On the other hand, I have to work hard to conceptualize and understand what it is like to be trans or have a nonbinary gender identity. It is a set of experiences and realities I have not really had to consider for myself, and for many years, for anyone in my circle of close friends and family. (Note: I make no claims that I have succeeded at understanding, only that I am willing to put in the work to move closer towards that end. So, please reach out or comment if I’m getting something wrong here!)

But, what I do know is that it’s not enough to just be tolerant or avoid overtly oppressive and hurtful words or actions. What I know is that I am asked to *love* all people. And love demands that I learn to see them fully, to find empathy for their sorrow and pain, to embrace their humanity in all its complexity, no matter how little their lived experience resonates with my own.

When my empathy fails to spontaneously arise, the best that I can ofter others is to BELIEVE THEM.

[Note: To the trolls and the angsty who will refuse to see the subtly of this approach and jump right to black-and-white thinking and argue, “So, it’s OK if people lie?” or “What? Am I just supposed to be a doormat?” and all those other bullsh*t things we say when we don’t want to evaluate and recognize privilege and complexity, please don’t jump ahead to the comments section before reading the next paragraph and spending a little time with your critical thinking smart-person hat one. If you chose to ignore this admonition, be prepared to receive an award. KThanksBye 😉 ]

When someone tells me they are hurt or happy or whatever, I can chose to believe them. I can assume that 9 times out of 10, what they are telling me is true and accurate. I can recognize that even when people exaggerate, overemphasize, omit, or twist the facts, they are rarely trying to be deceptive. I can look to my own experience and realize that sometimes *historical accuracy* fails to capture personal *emotional truth*, and we all craft our stories in one way or another to communicate that truth.

So, I can chose to believe both the facts and the emotional truth being offered. And unless there is meaningful evidence of deception or malice, any discovery of less-than-perfect historical accuracy should be taken as a signal that their emotional truth might be more complex than I would assume. And, unless I’m presenting in court or specifically assigned to make factual determinations, I choose to put my energy into trying to understanding the emotional truth they are offering.

In law, we use the concept presumptions and burdens of proof. The law gives us guidelines on when to assume something is true (presumption), what evidence is required to tip the scales to the other side (burden of proof), and who has that burden. For example, when you are arrested for a crime in the US, there is a presumption of innocence. Guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” (burden of proof) by “the state” (i.e., the government has the burden).

So, the first element of my emerging empathy practice is this: People who are expressing emotions (especially pain!) have a presumption of truth. That is, absent any overwhelming evidence of deception or malice, I will choose to believe you.

The second element is this: The further away you’re experience is from mine, the higher I will set the burden of proving otherwise. #lawyered

2 responses to “When Empathy Fails

  1. This post was well timed. Nuff said, Thank you.


  2. We are all human, and children of the same eternal father. Love and kindness are always the beginning of empathy.


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