Genuine empathy makes us better people in every respect. So why chide it?
A friend recently told me a story of one of his early experiences as a pharmacist-in-training. During a rotation in the oncology ward, he had a patient he was observing very closely and with whom he built a relationship. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, the man passed away. This was my friend’s first experience of loss and he was devastated.
His friends and colleagues tried to comfort him. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” they said reassuringly. “Stop being so sensitive,” others chided.
Not only was he not consoled but he was profoundly troubled. “They spoke of sensitivity as if it were some sort of disease, a serious personality flaw,” he related. “But isn’t sensitivity a trait that we want to foster and cultivate, not something we are eager to diminish and eliminate?”
It seems we are facing an uphill battle when those around us are promulgating the opposite viewpoint.
An effective leader needs to take off his shoes and feel the bumps on the road. He need to feel their pain.
When Moses first came to the burning bush, the Almighty told him to take off his shoes. He wasn’t channeling your mother who is always afraid you’ll track mud onto her freshly cleaner floors. He was teaching a deeper and more important (sorry mom) lesson. If you want to understand what the Almighty is teaching you, then you need to be sensitive. And if you want to be an effective leader, someone who others will respect and who will guide appropriately and thoughtfully, you need to be sensitive. You need to take off your shoes. You need to feel the bumps on the road, that hot sand at the beach. You need to tear down the barriers you’ve erected between yourself and others. You need to feel their pain.
This makes us better people in every respect. We are better friends when we empathize with their challenges, when we try to put ourselves in their shoes and understand what they’re experiencing.
We’re better marriage partners when we try to relate to our spouse’s needs, dreams, disappointments and frustrations rather than ignoring them, dismissing them, or treating them cavalierly. And I mean true empathy, not a perfunctory “I’m sorry to hear that but you won’t believe what happened to me today…”
We are better parents when our children feel we understand them. It doesn’t mean we can or should solve their problem for them, just that they should feel they’re not alone.
A woman I knew who immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union told me that whenever her kids complained, she had no patience. There were no challenges in their lives that could possibly compare to hers. And she was right. Yet her children needed her to understand their lives, to empathize with their struggles – even if they were about annoying teachers and disloyal friends and not about the KGB knocking on the door.
And we are better people when we empathize with the pain of our Jewish brothers and sisters across the globe. Like Moses who left the comfort of the palace to see how the Egyptians were treating his brethren – and who couldn’t see their pain without reacting (by killing the cruel Egyptian overseer), so too we need to step beyond the comfort of our own homes to first see the pain (in all its myriad variations) of the Jewish people and to ask ourselves what we can do about it. It begins with cultivating sensitivity.
The needs are endless and our resources are limited. Whether it’s visiting the widow down the street or giving money to the poor, the opportunities are plentiful. We just need to open our eyes and our hearts. We need to deepen our sensitivity. And we need to ignore any of the contrary messages, any suggestion that sensitivity is something to banish or diminish. For it’s only with true sensitivity to the needs of others that we will begin to make a difference.