As I mentioned in my last blog, Red Chair Session Part 2: Becoming a Storyhunter. I was able to hear the stories of people in Germany that blew me away. Listening to stories about where they had come from, where they had gone, and how they had arrived where they were when I met them. It was incredible. People seemed captivated when I told them how valued they were, and while I did not yet understand why, I sensed that the reason was vital. I knew that it was the reason I was there in the first place, I just did not know how to describe it. Now–over a year later–I have learned that one of the most crucial parts of hearing someone’s story is understanding it. By understanding someone’s story, you begin to truly understand and relate with them–to empathize with them. I want to talk about Empathy and Apathy, and how they are driving forces in our lives, even if we do not realize it. In this blog I will address what that means and how misunderstanding or not wanting to understand someone’s story could ruin the world.
This part of the blog will become a bit philosophical out of necessity. I want to establish some groundwork to discuss these words so that we are on the same page. People operate out of two modes: empathy and apathy–either you are actively relating to people or you are not. Unless you are a robot–or unconscious–I do not think that there is a way to engage in conversation or action with another person without interacting with them intellectually or emotionally. Both of these things–intellect and emotion–are capable of being apathetic and empathetic even though most people associate them solely with emotion.
(An example of intellectual empathy would be taking the time to listen to and attempt to understand someone’s political views–even if you greatly disagree with them–attempting to understand it logically from their point of view. An example of emotional empathy would be mourning with someone who lost their pet cat even if you do not care about cats. Both are representations of being present with someone outside of yourself.)
This concept is based on the idea that empathy and apathy are opposites. If you are not operating out of one, you operate out of the other by default; you cannot both respond to someone and ignore them at the same time. This does not mean that you become an apathetic person as soon as you stop empathizing with others–we all get tired in life and need a break. However an empathetic person can act apathetically as soon as they stop responding to the emotional or intellectual needs of another person. In order to move forward I want to define these terms along with some synonyms for reference.
Apathy* has two definitions:
- The absence or suppression of passion, emotion, or excitement.
- The lack of interest in or concern for things that others find moving or exciting.
- Indifference: The absence of feeling or interest
- Insensitivity: Deficient (or lacking of) human feeling or responsiveness
- Lethargy: Laziness or Sluggishness
Based on these definitions and synonyms of apathy, if you are apathetic to another person you are slow or completely unmoved to join someone in their suffering, joy, or perspective, lacking the responsiveness to relate to another person.
- The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- Appreciation: Recognition of worth
- Insight: Intuitiveness or awareness
- Compassion: Tender feeling or sympathy
Based on these definitions and synonyms of empathy, if you are empathetic to others, you identify with others in their feelings and thoughts by becoming more aware of them and recognizing their worth.
(I want to compare the definitions of Sympathy and Empathy and say: they are not the same thing. Sympathy is: “The harmony of or agreement in feelings, or the power of sharing feelings.*” The difference between these two is that sympathy shares your feelings and is an output of emotion. Empathy is the active and conscious decision to experience their thoughts or feelings, and is an input of both intellectual and emotional insight into the other person’s perspective.)
I think there are a lot of things in this world that are in a grey area or stand neutrally amidst black and white subjects, but I do not think that this is one of them. You can choose to not discuss something with someone or not comment, but that is not the same thing as empathy to apathy. Apathy is choosing to not understand another person. I do not believe that this is a subject that is debatable: apathy is bad. This is a world that requires human interaction, and when people refuse to relate or understand one another, it destroys relationships, communities, and day-to-day interactions. I know that some people hate other people groups, often acting out against them maliciously, but if those people were acting that like to your family would you not ask them to stop? If your brother or sister, mother, father, or spouse were being tortured or was dying in front of your eyes, would you not ask the torturer to stop and to understand your position?
An example of this can be seen in a video created by I Am Second in one of their “conversation” videos. Michael begins the video by sharing some about his past. He says, “I’ve hurt a lot of people. I’ve hurt a lot of kids, I didn’t hurt kids when I was an adult, but when I was a kid. I hurt these kids and I had their parents coming after me and they were protecting their kids. They were doing what any of us would do to protect their kids.
“I cried like a little baby the day that my son was born, because I knew that if anyone ever hurt my kid, I’d kill them. And these people I freaking hurt and destroyed their lives, they were just trying to protect their kid.
“That’s when I knew I had to walk away, I couldn’t do it no more.”
I would highly recommend watching the whole video because it shows the story of his journey from apathy to empathy.
I know that these seem like severe or extraordinary examples, but I think they need to be severe for people to comprehend that if you want to stop hate in this world we need to serve one another, not hurt them. Empathizing with someone is serving someone. After all, no missionary or peace corp volunteer (hopefully) ever spent years of their lives serving other people because they hated them, but because they saw how much need and importance those people had.
Michael comments on this too saying, “The things I’ve did in my past, the people I’ve hurt. The children and adults that I’ve hurt back when I was a child and as an adult, how can someone love me for that? How can someone respect me? And accept me for the things I did. That’s why I’ve had all that hate in me. Because who would want me?”
This post is not calling out any individual person, but rather the whole world. To the people who struggle to find connection with others for any given reason; the people who excel at relating, but find impatience toward certain people groups. This blog is not in isolation of any one person or people group, but rather is in association with all peoples; because no one has ever lived a life perfect or free from negligence–even partial carelessness–of another person. You have dealt with this at some point, and therefore this is not for one person but for every person.
I recently watched a documentary called, Like We Don’t Exist that provides an excellent metaphor for the importance of pursuing empathy. The documentary begins by talking about the Karenni people who have lost their identity. They have been pushed between two nations in small refugee camps and disallowed from association with either country. They want to provide for their families, but they are not allowed to work and can be arrested if they try. At the same time they cannot teach their children how to farm properly and their resources as refugees are being cut. The Karenni, as a people group, have lost and suffered much. One of their hopes is to have identity in the world again, to have peace with the surrounding countries–to do so by becoming educated.
“Everyone should have education,” A Kayan woman says, “and the world only accepts educated people. If we are not educated we will be left behind. It’s important to be able to explore the world.”
A young Karenni man adds, “If people have an education they can lift themselves up. If I don’t have it I will be under others. Nobody wants to live under others. Uneducated people will be slaves, but if I’m educated I can make my own choice.”
The Karenni people’s stance on education is clear: when a person is uneducated, they will always become subservient to someone else in this world. They cannot elevate themselves above those who know more than themselves. (This is something that is supported by another documentary called Loved By All in which Apa Sherpa says, “Without education we have no choice” talking about Sherpas working on Everest.)
This serves as a great metaphor for knowledge in general, but also applies directly to empathy: people who are uneducated to empathy become slaves to apathy. They become subservient to this alternate path simply because they have not been taught otherwise. That is not a “bad” circumstance, it is a sad circumstance. There are people in this world that are told they have no identity and have their hearts taken from them, or retreat far within themselves and then are expected to engage with the world in a way that understands and appreciates other people groups.
When you experience the harshness of apathetic people in this world, but have not been given the education for empathetic engagement, you must default to the former. You get left behind in the flow of the world, because through the coarseness of relationships, even (empathetically) educated people tend to respond apathetically to the people who seem uneducated.
There are people who have become educated to empathy and learned what it looks like to take care of others, and decide that there are exclusions to empathy–that not everyone deserves empathy; that some should be subservient to them physically and emotionally, regardless of what they have learned to the contrary. I think that this is wrong. Maybe this is because of something they hide within themselves, or because they simply have the ability to choose and have chosen poorly, but it is not justified.
Becoming empathetic is not easy and I think it requires constant self-sacrifice to understand other people. Every moment, every day, choosing to see things from someone else’s perspective. A really easy way to do this is by asking questions. Before assuming you know the answer, why don’t you ask what they know? Why they know it, how they know it. Often times it makes them less defensive and allows you to actually come to an answer together. A guide for this is one that we have begun to incorporate into BlueShoe and it is called The Shema Project.
Shema is a Hebrew word that means to listen, to engage, and to respond. That when you ask someone a question or talk to someone else, you are actively listening to what they are saying. Part of that active listening is actually engaging with what they said whether it is through additional questions or emotionally empathizing with them. Then respond by doing whatever they need, even if it is just continuing the conversation.
The video below is a trailer that we created for the project–featuring Collin Brown–that gives a little more detail and vision to this idea.
My hope with this post is–as I said before–not to isolate a certain person or people group. Not to call someone out or tell them they are wrong, but to simply stimulate empathy–to kindle the flame of empathetic engagement by understanding that every person across the world has the same hopes as you. Every person in this world has the desire to be known, to be told they are important, to be shown that they have value–to be known as a man, as a woman, as a person, as a human being–as them. That their name, their heart, their body has value, and that no one can ever take that away. Do you know who has the power to empower? You. Every day. Every conversation. Every interaction. Every chance you have to talk to someone, smile at someone, look at someone, you have a chance to change their life forever simply by making them know that they are known–simply by seeing them in every way. I want to make a change in the world and to leave an impact on others lives. The legacy I want to leave is a good one.
What about you? Would you rather help people grow or help people retreat inside themselves? Human interaction is very complex and yet at the same time very simple. We just want to be heard, and we just want to be known. Make someone known. Don’t push them away. Remember that they are just as tired and longing for hope as you are. Show them they matter, if only through a smile and a nod.
This is why we produce documentaries. This is why storyhunting exists. This is why BlueShoe exists. We live to serve people. To hear people. To understand and tell their stories and their lives. We don’t pretend to live the lives of others, but we do hope to perceive them. What do you hope to do? What is your purpose and what do you do to live it?
*Quotes and definitions taken from Dictionary.com
Here are also all of the links to the full videos mentioned in case you would like to view them:
I Am Second Conversations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzsM4wP5vS4
Like We Don’t Exist: https://vimeo.com/260495758
Loved by All: https://vimeo.com/270499256
The Shema Project: https://vimeo.com/246025114