*This post is a part of my project Me, Looking for Meaning.
The phrase "give somebody credit for" has two meanings. First, it can mean believing that somebody has a good quality. Second, it can mean praising this somebody for an achievement. And praising can also implicitly mean comparing one(self) to others who supposedly did not do as well.
So, the title of this essay has two interpretations:
(1) Am I empathic?
and if the answer is "yes",
(2) Can I, metaphorically speaking, pat myself on the back for being empathic AND compare myself to somebody else who seems to be less empathic than me?
I think and write about empathy a lot. Usually, I believe that empathy is my strength, a skill that I can develop in myself and, indeed, keep developing. But I also have plenty of doubts in my ability to be truly empathic. I want to think of myself as being fairly good at using empathy. However, I often catch myself focusing on my own emotions and experiences instead of feeling more with others or trying to understand what they are going through. (Side note: in this essay, I describe empathy as a useful skill, which is itself an assumption that not everybody agrees on, although in some cases this might be just a semantic disagreement after all.)
I see empathy as consisting of two aspects: cognitive and emotional. It's a way to connect with others on an emotional and/or intellectual level, to peek into the window of their world, so to say. I think that I can be a fairly empathic person because I do my best to remind myself that my perspective is only mine, to remain attentive to and curious about other people's worldviews, even if I do not quite like them (these worldviews or even the people who have them) for some reason. I believe that my empathy (when I manage to do it right) helps me stay connected to others, avoid blame by remaining curious about other people's actions, and keep an open mind, which allows me to learn and grow. Even if I am overwhelmed with an emotion, I am working on staying in touch with what's going on in another person's head and heart.
Thinking about the past, I notice that developing this level of empathy has been a journey. My memory offers some painful reminders of situations when I did not sufficiently care about how other people were feeling. The more I go back, the more painful these memories become, but then I remind myself that empathy is a skill that requires honing. And as with any skill, having trained yourself in empathy does not mean not making mistakes when using it. If anything, awareness about my mistakes in the past, and even in the present, helps me to keep learning. But even if we decide that I am an empathic person after all, the second interpretation of the title question remains: Can I praise myself for my achievements?
To remind you, what makes this question controversial (in my mind) is the implied comparison with some others who are supposedly less empathic than me. Does striving to be empathic and actually being empathic make me a good person, better than those less preoccupied with honing this skill? If you know me a bit, you won't be surprised when I say that I don't think that I am any better than someone who does not use empathy that often, someone who does not think that empathy could be improved and is, indeed, worth improving. Yes, I work hard on being more empathic, but in a way I just happen to be more preoccupied with it than some other people are.
If I observe somebody who does not seem to use empathy as much as I do, I have two main options: (A) I can say to myself, "This person is just not sensitive, they just don't care, they don't want to help, they are just making it worse, etc." (B) Or I can say to myself, "Empathy is hard. I struggle with it all the time. They must be overwhelmed with emotions, and I know how it feels. There must be something going on in their lives, or something from their past, that would explain why empathy is so hard for them or why they don't see its value." (Admittedly, I would be making an assumption that the other person in this situation is not using empathy, which is my interpretation entirely. They might be using it but in a way that makes sense to them.)
...I see this complexity as part of a much bigger conversation about free will. In general, when other people behave in ways that (we think) are not ideal, we can either explain this behavior by claiming that these people are inferior: "they are mean", "they are just stupid", "they are not normal." Or we can explain their behavior by taking into consideration a combination of (1) circumstances outside of these people's control combined with (2) some element of choice, and by admitting that the ratio of these elements is unknown to us. I believe that people do make choices, and that's why I am personally striving to be more empathic: I believe that empathy is a choice I can make, a sort of power that I can develop. But I also think that our actions, thoughts, worldviews, and even desires are shaped by our environment. So if I value empathy or find it easier than others to be empathic (ok, not always), there must be something about my genetic makeup, my upbringing, my experiences, rather than a fully controlled decision that I made (or make)--a decision that which would put me on some kind of pedestal compared to others who might not be as good (arguably) at empathy as me.
And really, can I give myself credit for anything good about me, for any of my achievements? For example, I am fairly organized in my work. Does it make me better than someone who often procrastinates and leaves projects unfinished? Or how about my ability to focus on and enjoy all the little things I see? I believe that this ability greatly helped me when I started learning about mindfulness. I probably made some choices along the way that helped me develop my ability to be mindful and self-aware. But I can assume that there has been something in me (e.g., the way my brain can focus on these details and enjoy them) that determined my openness to the idea of mindfulness. We can assume that there is some element of choice present in our actions, but the exact scope of this choice is hard to identify. There is, on the other hand, a great deal of determinism, including individual nuances of how every person's mind works, values we were taught growing up, coping mechanisms we were able to develop based on our experiences, etc. Even choices we made are often determined by circumstances that we would not be able to fully wrap our minds around.
So, I do not think that I can take full credit for my ability to be empathic, or for any other good qualities I might have. I might be able to take partial credit, though, but the vagueness of free will does not allow me to be more specific about the praise I might deserve. Just as I cannot be sure how much I can praise myself for my good qualities, I cannot ever be sure how much somebody else could be criticized for not having these traits. It is very possible that this somebody could not be rebuked at all. (Again, I am not even getting here into the thorny conversation about what makes a quality "good". I might think that I have good qualities, but somebody else would disagree. And who's to judge?)
Since I cannot take full credit for what I can do, I should also avoid looking condescendingly at people who do things differently. It is true that these people did make some choices in their lives, but many of their choices were constrained (so were mine). And if free will had been involved, I will never know when this freedom began and when it ended. Keeping this complexity in mind gives me further reasons to be more humble and curious about other people. I might not fully understand their circumstances, but I can give it a try; at the very least, I can acknowledge how little I know. To make a full circle: acknowledging that I cannot give myself full credit for being empathic is, in my mind, an essential aspect of developing my empathy.
SIGN UP to receive BLOG UPDATES! Scroll down to the bottom of the page to enter your email address.
I often use this blog to share new or updated entries of my hypertext projects. If you see several versions of the same entry published over time, the latest version is the most updated one.