What is empathy?
A dictionary definition for empathy is the, "identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings and motives."
It's important for us to understand the situations and the limitations that others find themselves. Those who are born in poverty, those who are born in a situation that doesn't offer the opportunity of education - requires us to take into consideration their situation. How it makes them feel. And how it makes them behave.
Empathy comes from the desire to want to improve the lives of others; to at least to the situation of our own. Without understanding the suffering that poverty causes, people are unable to understand the situation that others find themselves, when it is conditions beyond their control.
When it is within our control to improve the lives of others, through a simple concept, we are employing the compassionate emotion of empathy. We are caring about their situation. We are understanding the circumstances which brought them to their situation. We are understanding our own involvement in creating these adverse conditions. And we are actively doing something to improve the lives of others.
And why would we want to improve the lives of others? By improving the lives of others, we are improving our own lives.
Empathy is comprised of the suffix 'pathy' which means, "feeling; suffering; perception."
It means being able to feel, not only your own life, but the lives of others. It means caring, but most importantly, it means feeling. And we tend to go through our lives without feeling. And without feeling, there is very little sense of being alive. So being empathetic has more to do with the selfish need of feeling alive, rather than feeling numb.
We live in a society which identifies the strong as those who can function without feeling. Who can act rationally, coldly, steely. Little boys are taught not to cry and not to feel. In the end this only blocks out the world around them, because the only relationship we have to the world around us is how we feel it. Ultimately, this cripples, not strengthens, our children.
'Pathy' comes from the Greek word 'pathos' - which means, "as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings. Feelings of sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow."
'Pathos' is defined this way, because when we feel, we tend to sense the suffering and the misery that surrounds us. But 'pathos' means far more than sorrow. Pathos means feeling, and there's more to life than feeling sorrow.
'Pathos' also means joy. It means pleasure. It means tranquility. But we only reach those emotions after we begin to deal with the world around us - in a responsible way.
As Claude Steiner says, "You will also develop empathy, and will learn to take responsibility for the way your emotions affect others."
We reach joy through responsibility; for taking responsibility for the way our emotions, and our actions, affect others. If our emotions cause pain and suffering to others, our reward will be suffering and pain. The source of the affliction is within us. And when we affect others negatively, we may not realize it, but that negativity is coming from within.
It's our own unconsciousness, that causes us not to feel the pain within ourselves - that is the source of the pain we cause others.
So Emotional Literacy is learning how to become responsible for your own emotions, and the positive or negative impact that they have on others. Emotional Literacy means social responsibility.
'Pathos' means sympathy, and sympathy means, "A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other."
Emotional Literacy teaches us that we do not live in isolation, but rather in relationships with others. Therefore, what affects one person affects ourselves, and what affects ourselves affects others.
We dwell in a state of interdependency. I have defined sympathy as the simultaneous vibration or feeling that exists in two or more persons. We share the same feelings. We feel the same things. And whatever affects one person correspondingly affects the other.
The dictionary definition continues, sympathy is a, "mutual understanding or affection arising from this relationship or affinity."
Once again we return to the recurring theme of understanding as the basic fundamental definition of what Emotional Literacy is.
It's through this understanding, that we achieve affection for others - that arises out of our relationship, and our knowing affinity with others.
The dictionary continues, "The act or power of sharing the feelings of another."
We all share the same feelings. We just share them unconsciously. We all hurt each other, we just do it unconsciously. And it's only through knowing this - can we stop the hurt that we pass from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next.
"Sympathy is the act or power of sharing the feelings of another."
We all share the same feelings. There is something universal about feelings. We all share the same nature. And it's out of this nature, our feelings are derived.
The definition continues, "A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another."
Why, through empathy, do we experience sorrow? It's because we have caused each other such great misery, that when we open our hearts, we find that's all that's there. But there's more to life, if we get beyond the mutual hurt that we cause one another. But first, we have to understand what we've done to each other, because that's the only way to stop it, and to find new ways of joy to share in our lives.
Another definition of sympathy is commiseration. Emotional Literacy is not about commiseration. It's not about wallowing in the suffering of others. It's about rising above the suffering of others - by ceasing one's own participation in causing the suffering of others.
Sympathy, the dictionary continues, means, "Harmonious agreement."
That's the ultimate goal of sympathy. That's the ultimate goal of understanding. That one falls within a harmonious agreement with oneself, and therefore with others. But this is not our current situation. Our current situation, in relationships, is one of continuous disagreement; continuous discord and continuous conflict. And it's this conflict, and continuous fighting in relationships, primarily for dominance, that continues this suffering that we induce upon each other. Emotional Literacy is the only avenue that I have seen for humanity out of its current situation.
Copyright © 1999 - 2003 Mark Zimmerman. All
See main index page via link at top of this page.