Excerpts from our newest book-
The following essay is a chapter from our latest book titled ‘Generation Us, Living-Loving-Learning, Building Benevolent Togetherness‘.
‘Colin Jackson (Be Empathetic) is one of the most talented and humble young men I know, he is the most self-effacing gentleman ever. I thought it interesting and cool to have the dual perspectives of a younger man/millennial.
Thank you, Colin, for this submission, it made me tear up, truthfully!’
Humans have always struggled with empathy. As self-focused beings, we sometimes can’t understand others’ feelings. To get where someone else comes from takes time and effort. Most of the time, it’s much easier to center on our viewpoint instead of placing ourselves in another person’s shoes. If we’re right, we can comfort ourselves. We don’t ask if it matters as much as being compassionate and empathetic. Empathy means being “the bigger person”. We seldom follow through in a genuine attempt and that’s a problem. Frustration comes naturally when someone falls short. Almost everyone’s trying their best already—it’s our job to help make each other’s best better.
Empathy is hard. It appears easy but it’s not. The easiest way to describe empathy is “feeling with”. Without wearing someone’s shoes, it’s difficult to tell someone’s journey let alone imagine what that person’s feeling. I went to school with a kid that overdosed on heroin. I didn’t know him. I don’t believe I ever said more than an awkward “hey” to him when I walked past him in the hallway if our eyes met. As far as I know, he dropped out. After I graduated, news came out that he OD’d. I was video chatting with my friend shortly after and his death came up. She mentioned that his passing put things in perspective. It may have felt like a bad day. But someone nearby had the worst day of his life every day.
That story isn’t to say my empathy as a stranger could have saved his life. It’s not my place to make that claim or assumption. Instead, it demonstrates a type of thinking for when conflict arises. We gain nothing from judging one another for how we carry ourselves. Judgment minus reflection avoids dealing with problems head on. To simply conclude “this is bad” or “this is good” without looking at the surrounding circumstances would be lazy. Doing so would serve as an excuse not to take the time to understand where someone is coming from or why one feels the way one does. We choose to take the easy road for our own sake in those moments.
Growth requires choosing the harder path. Literature, religion, and proverbs point to this. Being understanding can mean fighting a natural reaction. Going down the road less taken sounds scary because it is, though no less important. Actor Michael K. Williams hosts a television show called Black Market. In its trailers, he speaks of wanting to show a window “to understanding why people do things they do—where that desperation comes from”. For him, that meant spending time with gun smugglers, poker house operators, drug addicts, carjackers and others that society deems criminal.
Views of the humans behind what easily seems like inhumane behavior made the show important. It’s not always apparent why someone feels the need to steal a car and it’s certainly easy to label anyone who does as a bad human being. A simple label though doesn’t do anything to curb the desire to steal cars. Sneering doesn’t help people move toward a better life than that of a drug-addicted shoplifter. Ignoring someone’s potential because of their mistakes and current situation ends up costing everyone. People fall. They find themselves in bad places and do bad things. Recognizing when to help people in those spots and make their best better advances society.
It’s important to treat each other as humans first instead of adversaries or objects. Chance the Rapper demonstrates this perfectly in the second half of his two-part tale “Pusha Man/Paranoia” from 2013’s Acid Rap. In it, he laments on life inside Chicago, a city reporters and outsiders dubbed “Chiraq” based upon the amount of violent deaths. Commonly, outsiders complain about the violence and deem those that live in the thick of it as savages. Chance offers a different perspective on this central to the idea of empathy. “I know you scared / You should ask us if we scared too / If you was there / Then we’d just knew you cared too,” Chance calls out to anyone listening. His hometown didn’t need condemnation and fear, it needed love.
Society doesn’t improve when we our initial response to disagreement is to fight. When we disagree, or perceive something as completely wrong, empathizing and trying to learn why others feel that way brings us closer. There’s no way for us to know if the person that seemed rude over the phone or behaved curtly is having a worse day than us or dealing with more than us. We can find out, though, if there’s anything we can do to help them find a better mood. Once we can see how they came to those results, maybe our own perspectives can shift. If we still hold the way we feel and their perspective doesn’t change, we at least know we tried and hopefully have more respect for each other.
Social media helped expose social lack of empathy. Less practiced, empathy thrives on immersion into opposing views and experiences. Tailored content on our social media feeds fixes it so that we rarely see anything we disagree with. Many liken it to an echo chamber. Challenges are necessary to grow. In a world where we only see what we agree with, we don’t have those same challenges. Thus, when confronted, it’s a natural reaction to go into attack mode instead of listen mode. People choose to listen to talk back rather than listen to understand. None of this leads anywhere. All this lacks compassion.
Occasionally hashtags poking fun at millennials trend on Twitter. They point out the usual stereotypes about my generation like us being lazy, addicted to our phones, unfocused and unable to carry a conversation, etc. Many of these are true and, at the end of the day, they are mostly jokes. Roles almost always reverse when millennials return the favor by teasing older generations for using a young people’s platform to rag on them. Young people respond by adding the fact that older generations built the world that shaped millennials’ habits.
This exchange misses the reasons each side feels the way they do. It also misses the parts each generation can offer. My generation earned the nickname, the participation medal generation. Mainly members of previous generations call us soft and complain about participation awards. They don’t try to see why inclusion has value to us. The world can seem like an unforgiving place stacked against success. By solely labeling millennials as soft or lazy, older generations miss just how hard and competitive our world is and how impossible it really is for a young person to be lazy and successful. Again, ignoring potential. If my generation ignores the wisdom other ones have gained, we lose that knowledge in favor of being hard-headed.
Identity has caused major problems between generations. Gender and sexual identity seems to rank among the worst. A debate over a concept that is more complicated than society gives credit doesn’t feel right here. Instead, I will take the approach that people can self-identify as whatever gender or sexual identity fits them best. It’s not my place nor anyone else’s to place a value judgment on another person’s experience so I won’t. Seeing see how hard things are for people because they’re themselves is enough for me to recognize I am not them.
Many find fluid gender and sexual identities hard to understand or swallow. Acceptance can come down to empathy. Life is tough for people that aren’t considered “normal”. For many transgendered individuals, life can be impossible as they often face violence, higher rates of homelessness and a social stigma among other hardships. Rather than judge a group in these situations, we can put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what life would be like facing those same hardships because of something about ourselves we can’t change.
Parents can have a hard time dealing when a child reveals their true self. My friend stayed closeted to his family until recently. His immediate family took it hard. From the outside, it seemed like his parents centered on their own point of view. In his words, “they are trying to get over it and ignore it”. Instead, they could have focused on trying to understand what their son was feeling and trying to get how hard it must have been for him to be himself. Once he posted a Facebook status announcing his orientation, I scrolled through comments. In the small sample, I saw family members of his that seemed supportive and willing to learn though maybe not entire sure of how to react. That’s the type of attitude more people need to have.
Choosing empathy means asking “what are they feeling” instead of “why don’t they see it my way?” It also entails taking the hard path. It requires using every bit of patience. At the end, it means working towards growth rather than to be right. It can come naturally when we see someone upset because they lost out on a job or a promotion. Moments that frustrated us the most, are the times we need to exercise empathy the most. It does us no good to exert our anger on someone else because of a disagreement. It does us much better to understand someone else’s position and work together for a better solution.