Learning the true meaning of empathy key to an effective society

The Dalai Lama speaks on "Embracing the Beauty of Diversity in our World" at the University of California San Diego ...
PHOTO: REUTERS

The Dalai Lama speaks on "Embracing the Beauty of Diversity in our World" at the University of California San Diego campus in June. Embracing diversity is a key part of being truly empathetic in my view.

It's slowly been dawning on me over the last few weeks that there must have been times in my life when people saw me as a smug, insufferable little snot.

I use snot to avoid having to employ the asterisk here, but the alternative would probably be more appropriate. You get the picture.

It's a reasonably confronting realisation, because I've always tended to see myself as a pretty down-to-earth, caring individual, but I've had to come to terms in the last while with the fact that at times I've been a lot more judgmental about people than I really want to be.

In the past, I realise I've written off people, in terms of the possibility of any meaningful interaction with them, because of snap, stereotypical judgments, often founded to a degree in my own insecurities. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, has almost certainly played a part too.

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Sorry, I didn't set out to pen a confession here, but I feel as though to a degree I'm on a journey of deepening self-awareness. As you'll know if you've read this column of late, I've had something of an epiphany about the importance of kindness in making our society one we'd all want to live in, and are all able to actively participate in.

Naturally, that kind of thinking ties into the political process so central to our daily lives in the build-up to next month's general election. In that regard, the message resonating for me has been the one from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a video I shared a couple of weeks ago, about moving "from the politics of the me to the politics of all of us together".

I want us to discover, as he so powerfully outlined in his TEDtalk in Vancouver, the "beautiful, counter-intuitive truths that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable".

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But I realise that has to start with me, so I really need to properly understand empathy.

I am empathetic, it's in my nature. I try to put myself in the place of others and feel how situations must affect them, in order to respond more effectively, and in that I know I'm different from a lot of people. It blows me away to realise there are some who simply aren't empathetic at all, and I find it hard to imagine what that would be like.

However I realise that my empathy can probably be selective - even guided by ingrained prejudices I really don't want to hold - which is a real problem in trying to foster a society that's about community, interconnectedness, mutual kindness.

I've been thinking about the true meaning of empathy, because understanding it better would surely help me learn to be more universally empathetic.

On Saturday, driving to Christchurch to see my daughters, I picked up a lovely Fijian man in Temuka. He lives in Dunedin and was heading to Christchurch too. He'd been on the road, I think, since about 3am.

We had a lot in common, it turned out. Both immigrants, both with daughters at university, so we compared notes. He works hard, as I do, but he pulls necessarily long hours to make ends meet, and I felt for him because I think he deserves better. And I felt lucky, and grateful.

When I dropped him off, I was buoyed by the experience, by his good wishes for me. I'd listened a lot because he was a great talker. He wrote down his number and left it with me. A good, kind man, and I wouldn't have had that experience if I hadn't pulled over.

That trip helped the penny drop this week. It started to teach me things about empathy that have been reinforced in interactions since.

The first is that real listening is an absolutely indispensable part of being empathetic. I can't hope to put it into practice – to display genuine compassion - if I don't truly understand what people I interact with are going through.

And it goes much deeper. I need to genuinely understand who people are, how they choose to identify, how they see themselves, to truly empathise. In short, I need to be properly open-minded, something I haven't always been. In fact, something I saw as a weakness in the distant past, when my privileged self-righteousness should probably have earned me a slap or two.

It's about diversity and inclusiveness, which factors into the other idea confirmed for me this week, that "diversity of contact breeds empathy".

That came from a Twitter contact, who added: "The people I meet who have the least empathy tend not to rub shoulders with people unlike themselves".

That's so important, from where I sit. It probably explains, to a degree, how groups of narrow common interest end up railing against society in general. Existing in bubbles of class, culture, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and more, can keep us from being part of an effective, integrated society.

So how to address that, to foster widespread empathy? It's a challenge for each individual who shares that vision.

Another contact suggested empathy was about "just not being a dick" and I toyed briefly with immortalising that sentiment on a T-shirt. But seriously, I think - as a friend suggested a while ago - the obvious contribution I can make, beyond simply trying to be kind, is trying to honestly tell real people's stories, in a way that shows not only that I understand where they're coming from, but truly helps others to understand them.

Hopefully that can help promote a widespread understanding that our differences aren't things that should divide us, but instead bring us together. As Jonathan Sacks says, "It's the people not like us that make us grow".

That's my challenge. Here goes.

 

 - Stuff

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