“Choose Empathy” has become something of a life message for me over the past while. I speak about this often and recently I spoke about this in the context of WORK and HOW WE DO WHAT WE DO at Linc Church (You can watch the message HERE.). Following these moments I have received many messages asking me to unpack this journey of choosing empathy and so I thought I’d share some of the story…
Call it what you want, “empathy, kindness, connection, feeling, stopping, caring” the world is in desperate need of more of it. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s screaming for more of it. Humanity has become increasingly more and more self centred. (guilty!) We’re all wanting to build something of our own story and I suppose this is okay if that’s all that matters but in last year or so I have been compelled to stop and look at my life and ask myself some questions. Because I don’t want to live the ‘okay’ life.
When thinking on empathy I’ve always thought that because I am not strong in this area it should be left for someone else to deal with. When I did the strength finder test a few years ago and then repeated the exercise last year empathy scored in the lower 10th of my strengths and so I have been known to say. “I don’t do empathy” or more unfortunately expressed “I suck at empathy”. However, over the last while I have had a change of heart. What I believe to be true of empathy now places the ball in my court. And this has altered completely how I live out my life.
I believe empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) comes more naturally to some people than others but inside us all is the daily opportunity TO CHOOSE EMPATHY regardless of how our personalities and strengths may contribute to the way we engage people on planet earth.
Miriam Webster takes things further in describing empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
I used to think we had to physically know certain pain to carry and comfort another but I now know this is not the case. Our brains will take us anywhere we will them to go. And if we dig deep enough we can CHOOSE TO FEEL deeply for anyone at anytime despite where may be at personally.
Choosing empathy is acting with relentless compassion. It’s not passive and hesitant. It’s engaging and passionate. It’s fuelled by the inherent knowing that pain buried has long lasting repercussions and it’s only possible to walk through when shared.
At Colour Conference this year I bought a top that says CHOOSE EMPATHY. A comfortable and striking reminder that it is indeed a choice. It takes courage and activated compassion to stop and see. To engage the inconvenience of the pain of others. To pause and appreciate that some peoples stories and journeys are fraught with deep distress and despair. And that we can lighten that load. It can mean as little as a smile. An embrace. Kind words, gentle eyes. It can mean being a helping hand or feeding a hungry family. It can look like listening and believing the best. Standing up for what is right and true. It means rejecting evils like racism and sexism. Choosing to move past the ways we have been conditioned to think about our roles in society. Empathy looks like getting educated. Know whats going on around you and find ways to reach out. It can look like silencing gossip and welcoming in a discarded person. For me empathy defies shame in any form. It speaks life and truth wherever it goes. Empathy looks like getting our hands dirty and forming deep heart connections. It looks generous and sacrificial. It looks like paying attention to our tone and choice of language. It’s radically encouraging. It refuses to leave someone wallowing in the mud of accusation and guilt. Empathy acknowledged that we have something to offer the world when we choose to be kind. Empathy is love on display. It’s kind. Extremely kind. It’s not convenient. It means engaging and embracing humanity and all of its brokenness.
Empathy calls for us to adjust our view and step into someone else’s shoes. We may get hurt in the process. The risks are high. The return is often low but somehow I think if we all did our part to choose empathy within our lives and in our spheres of influence we would see a different world. I wish I could tell you that you flick a switch on and it all works. Sorry. It’s not that easy. It starts in our own hearts and the journey is personal and unique for us all. Choosing empathy means going out of your way. Looking and seeing. Adjusting mindsets and world views. I think we all need a greater epiphany of the fact that it’s ok not to be right all the time. It’s way better to be kind than right.
I believe the next revolution of the world needs to be one of people who choose to relentlessly pursue empathy. In South Africa that means to become culturally empathetic. Believing that one way is not THE way. One culture is not better or more superior than another. That we all have something beautiful to offer the world and in essence we have all contributed to it’s brokenness. I trust that I will see a turn around in this nation in my life time. And I know it’s going to take more than a moral and people focused leadership. It’s going to take every single one of “choosing empathy”. And I’m up for it. My kids future relies on me choosing another way. Our futures depend upon our commitment to this people. ALL OF THE PEOPLE. Significant and generationally impactful change has only ever occurred in history when ordinary people rise up and choose a different way. Call me crazy but I believe it’s possible but not without all of our buy in.
I dream of day when we will look back and see the unravelling and unfolding story of grace and compassion that shifted a land into further freedom and wholeness. That took the cries of the people and held them for a moment as healing entered in. That saw the mourning turn to dancing. That witnessed every tribe, language, race and ethnicity united and free.
We can dream right? I choose to dream. I choose to see and believe. I hope you will to.