By Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani
An Active Approach Towards Empathy
“Try to walk a mile in their shoes”: an adage we students have been encouraged to follow since we were young. It’s a phrase that I’ve been thinking about more and more recently, and I’ve realized that it misrepresents what it means to be truly empathetic.
So what is empathy? Defined as the ability to understand another’s feelings, empathy is incredibly easy to equate with “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” In theory, the act of doing so seems to enable us to look at a situation through their perspective. However, over time, the phrase has become an almost empty substitute for truly attempting to understand someone’s feelings. This becomes even more difficult when we try to be effective allies in situations where we’re not the affected demographic. Attempting to walk in someone else’s shoes is a passive process that distances us from the person we are trying to understand — it suggests that empathy is an individual journey. Beyond that, it’s almost impossible to put into practice, given how unique human experiences and the emotions involved are. We’ll never realistically fit into each others’ shoes and gain a proper understanding of what the other person is going through; we all have different reactions and emotions associated with experiences. Our attempts to walk in someone else’s shoes by staying informed about the issue at hand are futile.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s entirely impossible to see from someone else’s point of view — it just means we need to alter our definition of empathy. We need to move towards a more communicative approach. Rather than trying to walk in someone’s shoes, we must walk beside them. In the lens of understanding issues that may not impact us, this means we cannot stop at passively researching or staying informed. We must actively seek out the other perspective by conversing with those who are directly involved or impacted: only then can we truly get a feel for the path they’re walking on.
Now, it’s more important than ever to exercise empathy meaningfully. As we strive to be allies to marginalized groups, we must take an active approach towards empathy. Infographics and articles are wonderful ways to stay informed, but in order to truly be involved in the cause at hand, we must seek out voices of those involved and listen. Through this practice, we can begin to understand how we can most effectively contribute and help our friends, family, and community.
Cover graphic by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani