Having empathy is one of the highest hallmarks of attaining humanhood. The world is desperately in need of more compassion and greater empathy, yet we often find ourselves struggling with this emotion. Shivi Verma and Shilpa Shah explore the contours of this sacred virtue and how best to remove the obstructions that come in the way of its natural expression.
The Hindi word ‘karuna’ has no equivalent in English, and yet it means a kind of empathy which is full of emotion; making one feel, understand, and identify with someone else’s pain. Without empathy, the world would become an inhabitable place. Moved by empathy, people often make the highest of sacrifices, if such an act could remove the other’s pain. Many spiritual anecdotes exemplify how seekers were tested on this crucial parameter, before being granted their wish by the Divine.
In the sacred Kanwar Hindu tradition of India, devotees collect Gangajal (water from the holy Ganges) and offer it as Abhishekam on the Shivling, in Rameshwaram (a holy place in South India), during the auspicious Hindu month of Shravan. During one such pilgrimage, Sant (saint) Eknath of Maharashtra filled two pots filled with Gangajal in Varanasi and carried them slung across his shoulders to offer them to Lord Shiva at Rameshwaram. On the way, Sant Eknath, along with his fellow pilgrims who were also carrying pots filled with holy water, had to cross huge mountains, rivers, jungles, and several obstacles to reach their final destination. Being peak summertime, the scorching heat from the sun was unbearable. Yet, without uttering a word of complaint, he continued on the journey with complete faith and love for the Divine in his heart.
Just when their destination was barely a few steps away, the group noticed an emaciated donkey withering away on the parched earth. It was obvious that the poor creature was dying of thirst. On watching this sight, Sant Eknath’s heart melted. He knew that if he didn’t do something to help, the donkey would die. Such was his empathy for the suffering animal that he quickly offered it the entire holy water that he had been painstakingly carrying for miles without much ado. The donkey lapped up every drop of it and soon, feeling restored and recharged, stood up braying happily.
Other members of the group who were watching this scene were shocked to see Sant Eknath give away all the holy water to the animal. They exclaimed, “Oh, what have you done? Now that all your holy water is gone, you have nothing left to offer at the Lord’s feet, and so your pilgrimage shall remain incomplete!” The saint, however, replied calmly, “What you say is correct, but how could I just be a mere bystander and leave the poor donkey to die, without giving it some water to quench its thirst? However, I am quite sure that not only will Lord Rameshwar forgive me for this but shall also be delighted.”
According to folklore, only Sant Eknath was given darshan (blessed by His presence) by Lord Shiva amongst all other pilgrims as only he had understood the real meaning of service and devotion to God.
What is empathy
Empathy is about being aware of and sensitive to other people’s feelings. In its essence, it is the ability to put yourself in the other’s shoes, not as you, but as ‘them’ and feel their pain without holding any kind of judgment. For someone who is truly empathetic, every creature throbs with life and energy and nothing can ever be lifeless or inanimate. Empathetic people are highly aware of the sentience of others—whether humans, animals, or plants—and their ability to feel pain and hurt, and are therefore careful about how they treat others. Alfred Adler, an Austrian doctor, psychotherapist, and founder of the school of Individual Psychology, says, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”
One of the greatest signs of being human is the ability to feel empathy, a sense of oneness with others. Empathy has the unique power to unite people across borders, nationalities, creed, class, and gender divides because it makes one identify with the core of our existence—our humanness. If you ever have wondered what prompts people to help strangers trapped because of the lockdown, reach out to those caught in the massive Australian bushfire, or pray to God to help others overcome these calamities, the answer is just one—empathy.
It is empathy, love in action, that makes us pool money and resources to help people during natural disasters, come together to clean up beaches, distribute blankets in chilly winters to the needy, talk kindly to strangers, and nurse and feed wounded animals found lying on the roadside. Many kind souls even endanger their own lives to help others. And what is most noticeable is that they don’t do this to ‘show off’ or gain any mileage out of these noble acts. They simply do it because they deeply feel the suffering of others and respond to them whichever way they can.
Why do people lack empathy?
“The highest form of knowledge is empathy.”—Bill Bullard.
Everything is pulsating and vibrating in this vast Universe. In fact, the one who is alive from within can feel and perceive the aliveness which is throbbing in every single thing of this world. Such a person is automatically aware of the pain sensors which are present in all living beings. To be empathetic, one needs to be emotionally intelligent, which also serves as a measure of an individual’s maturity level, for only an emotionally intelligent person can practice empathy.
Yet, there are examples galore in human society which indicate that the human race suffers from a shocking lack of empathy. Instances of rapes, murders, exploitation, xenophobia, and pogroms do tell us that, often, there are other things which determine the choice of our actions and which often overrule empathy.
What could be the reasons for this incongruence in human reality and behaviour? The answer lies in the pliability of the human mind. The human mind can be conditioned to act either for the sake of the larger good or its opposite. If the mind gets indoctrinated with the idea that others have fewer rights or lower social status, it becomes much easier for people to not empathise or identify with their suffering. Dhruvika Kapur, a dermatologist based in Chandigarh, says, “While studying in college, I got embroiled in a discussion over the ethicality of eating meat as it involved taking the life of an animal. However, a friend of mine justified eating non-vegetarian food on the basis that according to her religion, animals did not possess a soul, and therefore it was not sinful to kill and eat them. She was completely convinced that it was her right to do so and that nothing could change her mind. I was surprised to see how religious indoctrination could easily convince a person to shut the voice of her own soul.”
Despite the fact that empathy benefits everyone, and is natural to humans, it is unfortunate that the fabric of our society has been tattered several times because of the selfish, cruel, and inhuman acts of a group, individual, or a section of society. Let’s explore the possible reasons for our unempathetic behaviour.
Selfishness or greed
The presence of abattoirs, female infanticide, the terrible abuse of natural resources like deforestation, relentless mining, poaching of waterbodies, and the extinction of many animal and bird species are just a few examples of extreme human selfishness which gives rise to a lack of empathy. Pick up any book on world history or glance at any newspaper, news channel, or crime-based serial and you will find umpteen instances of cruel and barbaric acts committed by humans on innocent people because they were blinded by their greed for power, money, and control. This greed has led to the subjugation of races, species, genders, and regions across the world.
Dehumanisation of victims
Dehumanisation can be described as the denial of humanness to others and the cruelty and suffering that accompany it. In the book Less Than Human, author David Livingstone Smith says that dehumanisation opens the door for cruelty and genocide. During the Holocaust, the Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves as subhuman animals. By dehumanising people and considering them low, inferior, or evil, one does not feel any remorse for hurting them. For centuries, women have suffered untold atrocities because they are often considered inferior to men. Most sufferers of domestic or narcissistic abuse complain of one thing in common: that their oppressors lacked empathy. They did not have the ability to feel the pain they subjected their victims to. Sadly, this apathy is at times so deeply rooted that the ‘other’ just does not exist for them.
Mute and innocent animals too have been at the receiving end of human brutality because they are considered lesser beings. The meat and dairy industry is the perfect example of human beings becoming insular to the suffering caused to millions of helpless animals because it helps fulfil their momentary craving for flesh and milk. The filthy, unhygienic conditions in which these animals are caged and bred speaks volumes about our disconnect with empathy. Even today, numerous drug and cosmetic companies subject animals to extreme torture and cruelty, just to test if their products are safe for human consumption.
Empathy is for the weak
Another reason for the lack of empathy in society is the equation of machismo with being insensitive or unfeeling as a person. Emotions such as empathy, tenderness, caring, and thoughtfulness are associated with women and hence dismissed as the attributes of the weak, making them undesirable for men to nurture in themselves. An idea propagated and imposed by the patriarchal society. The Good Men Project, an initiative that aims to challenge public perception of what it means to be a man in the 21st century, describes toxic masculinity as a form of manhood that’s “defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression. ”The organisation explains that men who exhibit behaviour affiliated with toxic masculinity often view stereotypically feminine traits, such as being emotionally vulnerable, in a negative light.
Toxic masculinity doesn’t solely affect the boys and men who exhibit ‘toxic’ behaviour but also those around them who may not identify with or relate to conventionally masculine traits. Usually, men who display kindness, emotion, and empathy get termed as ‘sissy.’ This is the reason why bullies often come to be regarded as leaders by society and are usually at the forefront of enterprises that run on the exploitation of the marginalised, weak, and oppressed.
However, aggression is counterintuitive. The more fearful you are, the more afraid you will be to show empathy and vulnerability. In contrast, to show empathy, you need to be strong from within and not be afraid of being considered weak and vulnerable by others. The New Age men, for example, who have discovered their interconnection with the Universe and all of life on Planet Earth, often leave conventional careers to work in harmony with the earth, the environment, and the underprivileged section of society.
Empathy can be troublesome
It is an interesting point and perhaps the reason why people often display a lack of empathy. We often ignore beggars, the sick, the dying, and the abandoned because our minds tell us that we cannot afford to solve each and every problem on earth. We are already so fatigued with what is going on around us that we get unbearably overwhelmed by the depressing state of our surroundings. As the world outside is getting uglier, more and more empathetic people are turning away from TV, newspapers, or anything that might disturb or pain them. Empathetic people also run the risk of being manipulated by fraudsters, who might fake a problem to get their help, thereby draining and exploiting them. To a certain extent, it is okay to shield ourselves, but as we grow spiritually, we just cannot remain indifferent to the suffering around us, for real empathy makes us act, move, and take serious measures to mitigate it. Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Swami Vivekananda, Baba Amte, and Mahatma Gandhi are the best examples of empathetic people who could not stay unmoved by human suffering and decided to do something about it in a constructive manner.
Can empathy be cultivated?
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji, the founder of The Art of Living Foundation, which has more than 450 million followers across the globe, provides some interesting insights on empathy:
“As humans, we are all born with a certain amount of empathy. So it is both natural and can also be nurtured. But, to be able to express empathy, one needs to be stress-free, because if you are stressed, you will not be able to express empathy even if you have it. Secondly, one does not have to put efforts to cultivate empathy. Even if you are simply aware of the situation, you will find that empathy is already rising in you. Feelings cannot be enforced either on you or on others; you cannot force yourself to like something; either you like it or don’t like it. The latter could be because you have limited understanding, or your mind is clogged with prejudices, or you are stressed. So, the solution is to make your mind free from stress, free from prejudice, and to broaden your awareness, and then, with that, your perception changes. The moment your perception changes, your connection with everything around improves. And when you feel connected to everybody and everything, you can’t but love or like them.”
So, in such a scenario, is it not counterproductive for business leaders to be empathetic at the workplace? Sri Sri answers with a firm “No, it is not.” He clarifies, “Your heart and brain can be developed simultaneously, and they have defined roles, which can be played perfectly in a balanced way. Every business person has both feelings as well as an intellect which is capable of sharp observations, so you need not sacrifice one to practise the other and it can be easily done. The secret is a bit of wisdom and meditation.”
Many successful business leaders now emphasise on a work culture that promotes humility, empathy, and trust amongst their employees. Recently, at an event, Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani applauded the Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, for his leadership style, which is largely based on empathy, trust, and the philosophy that it isn’t just about product or profit but about people and their continuous reinvention of capability, which is the strength of an organisation.
Pain can make you empathetic
If one has never experienced suffering, troubles, fears, challenges, or loss, one will not understand what others feel when they go through hardships. Therefore, pain not only makes you humble but also empathetic. You avoid judging others or feeling superior to them because you know first-hand how it felt when you were hurt. You are mature enough to realise what the other person needs and offer exactly that instead of giving sermons. Nivedita Kamra, 34, a Delhi-based corporate lawyer, struggled with depression, but nobody could understand her state, empathise with her or help her in anyway as they had no idea of what a depressed person experiences. She battled with the disease all alone. However, with time, she slowly overcame her problem. She says, “A few years later, my brother too came down with depression. But since I had gone through it and knew what kind of help a patient of depression is looking for, I could immediately come to his rescue.” She took complete care of him and held him in a way that she was herself denied. With her genuine efforts, he started healing gradually. No wonder he remains immensely grateful to her for her empathetic behaviour.
Empathy is also an extension of great kindness and sensitivity. Empathetic people do not overreact when someone complains to them about any of their mistakes. They patiently listen and try to understand where the person is coming from and apologise if their actions have caused any hurt. But sometimes, pain can also make people insensitive. It is a conscious choice, whether to transmute your pain to kindness and empathy or use it to build anger and vengeance in yourself. Many criminals, for example, have a long history of abuse and violence, which makes them angry and vengeful, making them take it out on other more vulnerable souls. Even in your personal relationships, anger can block you from feeling empathy for your friends, family members, or spouse. Hence, for empathy to take root, you need to keep working on your ego, entitlement, and anger issues.
Empathy for your own self
However, no amount of empathetic behaviour is complete if it excludes empathy for your ownself. We often overgive, just to get in the good graces of people we want to please or prove our worth or merit. Empathy for ourselves helps us set boundaries and ensure our overall welfare. It offers a great lesson in humility too, as it makes you aware of your own limitations: how much you can do and when you need to stop putting in the effort. It helps you acknowledge the fact that just like all other human beings, even you are capable of making mistakes and learning from them and, therefore, deserve all the compassion, kindness, and understanding you so easily extend to others. Being empathetic towards yourself allows you to speak your truth, give your body and mind the much-needed rest and nourishment, find solutions to your problems, ask for help, and do what makes you truly happy.
Tessa Menatian, a writer and editor at Key Step Media, says, “When we take responsibility for forgiving and caring for ourselves, the compassion we extend to others also becomes more genuine. Self-empathy enhances our confidence and inner strength and opens us up to connection and shared purpose. This enables us to inspire others with our vision and articulate common goals. Self-empathy can also make it easier to forgive people in our lives. When we replace self-criticism with self-understanding and accept that, as humans, we will inevitably make mistakes, it becomes easier to extend this understanding to others.”
On the other hand, judging ourselves too harshly makes us strict perfectionists who are, consequently stressed. People who commit suicide due to a failure in life are victims of lack of empathy for themselves. Hence, it is important to always have a kind word for yourself and allow yourself to benefit from the kindness and compassion that you think others are worthy of.
Difference between empathy, sympathy, and apathy
Though commonly used, there is an important distinction between the three. Sympathy involves understanding someone’s pain. Compassion includes taking some action which was amiss in sympathy. While in empathy, you actually experience those feelings, as if you were the same person who is in distress. As humans, when someone loses a dear one, we can relate to the situation, share their sadness, feel sympathy, and even compassion but not necessarily experience what the sufferer is actually going through. But in empathy, you feel things from the other person’s perspective, as if you are that person who is going through that situation.
Osho says, “The experience of empathy is very rare. You know what sympathy means; you also know what apathy means; but empathy you do not know. Sympathy and apathy are opposed to each other. Empathy is beyond both. To help you understand it, let me tell you an incident in Ramakrishna’s life.
He was in a boat surrounded by his disciples, going to the other shore of the Ganges near Calcutta. And suddenly, without any apparent reason, he started screaming, “Don’t beat me!” Tears started flowing from his eyes, and one could see that his body was getting distorted as if somebody were beating him. The disciples could see nobody there, but he was immensely tortured.
“When they reached the other shore, they found a fisherman with a big crowd surrounding him. He had been beaten by a few people. And the strangest thing was that the same bruises and scratches that had come up on his back had come up on Ramakrishna’s back too.
“This is empathy. You feel so one with the other that your separate identities lose their boundaries. The other’s thirst becomes your thirst, the other’s hunger becomes your hunger, the other’s joy becomes your joy. The other is no longer other; some secret passage has opened between two beings, a deep connectedness.
“Apathy is inhuman. When you are apathetic towards anybody, your heart becomes harder. The more apathetic you are, the more your heart will lose its great qualities. It will become just a pumping mechanism for breathing, but not a bridge for feeling. Empathy is the only quality that joins you with the life current within other human beings, animals, trees—with the whole existence.”
The science of empathy
Empathy being a precious moral and social resource, many scientific researches have been carried out to understand its origin and functioning: what exactly goes on in our brains when we empathise? Can neuroscience help us understand as to why we care? Well, cognitive neuroscience research shows that experiencing empathy involves specific parts of our brains, which include learned behaviours and unconscious responses. The activation of ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain leads to the ability to mirror and mimic the emotional responses that people would feel if they were in similar situations.
Benefits of empathy
There are several benefits of being able to experience empathy:
• Empathy helps you build trust. Rather than wearing a mask or being on the defensive, empathy gives you the space to allow your authentic self to come forward, thereby promoting transparency and also providing a real understanding in your interactions with others.
• It allows you to build better relationships and strong social connections with others. By understanding what people are feeling and thinking, empathetic people are able to respond better and appropriately.
• Empathy enables actions of caring and concern. Not only are you more likely to express caring ways when you feel empathy for othersbut even they are prompted to help you when they experience empathy.
• Empathy also enables healthy, win-win interactions, where every person involved in the situations feels heard, understood, and is respected and helps in focussing on what truly matters between human beings and also ensures safety and dignity for everyone.
Let us begin to listen to the voice of empathy in our hearts. Let us not exempt anyone from our empathy, whether its men, women, children, the elderly, animals, birds, or the plant kingdom. Surely, we all can benefit from a little more empathy. And we all can do with a little less judgment.
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