What is Empathy?

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


September 26, 2010

I’m hungry. It’s 11:02 on Friday night and I’m really freakin’ hungry.  This is because I had approximately 2/3 of a cup of rice for dinner.  Tonight, we had an Oxfam hunger fast.  Of the 29 Fellows, five got to eat a typical, delicious (and I mean, unbelievable IONS food) dinner with drinks, dessert, utensils—the whole shabang.  Ten “middle class” Fellows got a bowl and fork, some ice water, and a pot of beans with a bowl of guacamole to share.  The rest of us sat on the ground and ate our cup of rice with our hands and had to walk across the room for water from our “well.”

I’m hungry, but I’m not empathetic.  I’m not empathetic because I’m in a comfortable, warm bed, I’m bumming around on facebook, texting a friend, and I know that at eight am tomorrow morning I will have access to as much nutritious breakfast as I can handle.  I’m not empathetic because my memories of hungry people during my time in India are fading.  I’m not empathetic because this hunger is temporary, and I know that.

So how does one experience empathy? On Tuesday, we did an exercise called the “Five Dollar Day.” We each had five dollars to survive the day—get meals, pay for transportation, etc, and we were to pass the time talking to homeless people.  Tuesday, I discovered there are two types of empathy.

The first type is “superficial empathy.” This is how it works:

I pass a man on the street with a sign that says, “Money’s tight since daughter’s 6th birthday party. Please help. God bless.”  So I stop and think, “Shoot. He has nowhere to go. He is hungry and it’s cold.” I make assumptions about him, and from his assumptions, make another assumption that he’s telling the truth, and put a few bucks in his cup.  I walk on and forget about him.  I just give him change because, from my “empathetic” point of view, that’s what he needs—but I never take time to actually find out what he really needs.

I met Josh on Market Street in San Francisco.  We spoke for an hour and a half, and I would like to think I experienced real empathy with Josh.  As we sat on the ground, I not only listened, but heard what he was saying. I let him talk and didn’t try to relate because I can’t understand.  Traveling is his passion. He had a place to shower and crash.  He needs to hop onto freight trains and travel because it breaks the temptation for drugs.  When he’s in a new place, he can’t be sure the drugs he’d get aren’t laced and he doesn’t know what the drug scene is like.  Staying on the move helps him keep clean as he moves into his sixth consecutive substance-free year

Real empathy works like this: Let’s say Naomi’s dog dies. Instead of trying to tell her about the time my cat was hit by a car, I let her cry and tell stories about Buddy. I simply listen. Relating is important at times—it helps us put others’ experiences into context.  But it’s not my definition of real empathy.

But what comes next?  I gave Josh one of my day’s five dollars for a popsicle—did that impact him?  Will his presence stay with me? Is pure, “real” empathy—before it catalyzes social change—worth anything?  Did my time and dollar do anything? I’m not sure.

Thoughts?

Lily Shaffer