Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Empathetic Distance and Empathy as Luxury

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Just a quick thought. That our capacity for empathy is sometimes a luxury. And that distance may or may not help us be more empathetic.

As someone who had fertility problems for almost 5 years, I remember feeling angry and not at all empathetic when someone complained of the difficulties of raising kids. As someone who understands the latter now, I (obviously) can empathize, and know they assuredly did NOT mean to rub it in.

When I had fertility problems, I empathized with others w similar problems, but more w those who couldn’t get pregnant at all (like me) than those who miscarried a lot (which I assumed was much worse… I just mean I couldn’t possibly know how bad it was because my problem was different). More difficult was understanding people who  chose not to have kids and the more “default” situation of just naturally having kids without really thinking about it. Worst of all, getting kids you never wanted at all. I now think I can empathize more with this entire spectrum. New to me is getting to hear the experience of a gay couple seeking adoption. Just starting to understand it from friends i know and care about rather than TV shows and novels. It’s very different when it’s someone close to you. 

So about distance. 

When you have so much hurt your living, experiencing, it is hard to empathize with someone too distant from your situation. To do so, there needs to be some kind of luxury that you don’t need to invest all your emotional energy in your own self and you have some left over for others. Or you acquire distance from your OWN situation (e.g. because of time or changes) and you can be empathetic in hindsight.

I hope all of this helps us broaden our capacity for empathy as we grow.

I know that at times I was so caught up in my own oppression, marginality, pain, that I could only help myself and fight for myself, not noticing pain of others who were different from me, noticing only those similar to me.

I know at times that being too distant from another situation means I cannot fully empathize and I need to bring it closer to home, to a feeling or situation I felt or lived in order to imagine it.

I think, we can develop it in the moments we have the luxury or compulsion to and our capacity grows.

As @BMBOD said on Twitter (OK she said several thoughtful things)

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