The Empathetic

By Fungai Chigumbura, Zimbabwe


One of the pitfalls of being a writer, or simply enjoying the spoken word, is the tendency to overthink. Your mind races to a million different possibilities about the most minute of details, soaring above the landscape of every different turn of events before settling on maybe a dozen or so to focus on. It can be exhausting, no doubt, as one needs an immense amount of mental bandwidth to constantly analyse and scrutinise elements of life most people pay no mind to. Within that chaos though, as with all things, there can emerge a sort of rhythm. The key to overcoming overthinking isn’t to try and restrain the mind and despise this element of yourself. Rather, focus on the beauty of the random nature of thought, with a firm caveat: only focus on the beautiful.

The injunction to focus on the beautiful, to emphasise the sublime and live for the better is like a tree whose roots extend far beyond the visible, into the deepest earth of  being human. These roots touch on all sorts of the best human experiences: love, joy, passion, achievement, discovery, cinnamon rolls and rum and raisin ice cream, and perhaps most importantly for our time here, empathy.

What is that spirit that moves between all of us that allows us to instantly understand the experience of someone a million miles and several lifetimes away? It’s empathy.  Empathy is the foundation of all positive human interaction, the lifeblood of those conversations you can have with a complete stranger, the fuel that compels us to connect. It’s such a potent force that it can jump out at you through a mere glance, or just one word. For this reason, empathy is the cornerstone of all great stories. When was the last time you read an excellent book, watched a good movie, and listened to a moving song that did not have you empathise with the characters you followed? It’s impossible to connect with any sort of narrative without establishing some base of empathy with what you’re reading/watching/listening to. We see ourselves in the events and lives described, and even when they don’t apply to our own past, present and future, human existence is such that we’re always one second away from our imagination allowing us to, if nothing else, understand. Empathy is where great stories come from, and since life is essentially one long story, it is also the ink that dots the pages of our days.

Much of how we live today seems designed to strip away our empathy for each other. Polarisation to extremes has become the norm, and fewer people than ever attempt to look beyond their beliefs to remember the human. It’s common to see online rhetoric devolve into name-calling and nastiness for no reason other than differing beliefs. In these times, it’s far too easy to forget that we’re communicating with another person, someone with hopes, fears, dreams, and insecurities. They may not have the exact same measure of these things as you do, but no one’s experience is invalidated simply because it does not suit a certain mould.  Empathy is not to condemn or condone, but to understand. It takes only one second to step back, reflect, and ask, ‘Am I displaying empathy?’

The common refrain against empathy is that it seeds weakness. It is true that treating empathy as the only virtue one needs can lead to problems of coddling and lack of firm instruction and direction. The soothing, caring side engendered by empathy too often leads to a lack of objectivity and discipline where and when these values are needed. The empathetic parent might be in danger of allowing their child to become wayward because they lean too heavily on their empathy and love. Empathy, like love, is meant to soften, not weaken. The best form of empathy, I’ve found, is the practical kind. One can understand why someone did something, but need not give the act their blessing. The actor must be regarded as human, but the action should always be viewed in stark light. After all, truest empathy desires what’s best for the person to whom it’s directed.

Empathy then, must be tempered with truth, for if you truly care for someone, you tell them the truth at all times, even when it’s not what they want to hear. It might be painful, but humans are intuitive enough to know when truth is being used to guide and help and when it’s utilised to harm and hurt.

We are, after all, connected at every level.

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