Empathy: The Only Way We Can Come Together is to Listen

Listening to understand far outweighs listening to respond.  In this increasingly chaotic atmosphere of divisive rhetoric, we must admit that we do not have all the answers.  Rather than respond with pablo-5vitriol, we must speak to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.  At times, this may mean that we must listen to the anger and frustration in others’ voices.  It is important that we do not discount a person for their anger or pointed attacks.  Rather, we must listen to where the anger stems from. In our culture there are many things that white america does not get and we are not able to fully comprehend.  The truth is that it may not be our own reality, but it is the reality of fellow human beings.  That anger and frustration is something that is very real.
The pain is stricken into the fabric of their lives— into the way they move through the world.  When we listen to understand, we can begin to hear.  I have heard many calls for togetherness and love, but too often this is a way to ignore the real issues and subvert any real change in our world.  Empathy is the key to love— a key to loving someone who may be very different than ourselves.  If we want love to win over hate, then we must begin listen to the stories of others who are different than ourselves.

Unfortunately the one thing that is similar throughout our human existence is suffering.  Although our suffering may be very different and we experience it in different ways, one thing that every human on earth can relate to is the fact that living a mortal life is fraught with suffering and pain.  When you are going through a difficult time, would you rather hear someone tell you that they know what they are going through or would you rather them listen and acknowledge that they can’t imagine what it’s like but they are willing to listen?  Many of my students deal with struggles that go well beyond anything that I have ever gone through.  Some of their worlds leave me wondering how they even get out of bed in the morning let alone smile— yet they do.  Rather than listening to them and telling them I know exactly the feeling, I simply listen.  I listen to understand their struggles rather than to respond with my own struggles.  I offer my support and guidance but never once do I suggest that I know the feeling.  In truth— I don’t.

In our world we need to spend more time listening to one another and less time responding.  Social media makes it so easy to draw lines and create sides without ever seeing the faces of those we are effecting.  We see our feeds buzz by and respond with our opinion in the matter without ever looking at the other person’s perspective and asking: “Why do they feel this way?” Or ” Why are they angry?”  

The next time an issue crosses your feed, take a moment and reflect on these questions.  If you don’t understand, ask with the intention of learning.  Furthermore, let’s take the conversation beyond the world of virtual and into the mechanistic world of human to human contact.  When you hear a student, a coworker, a colleague, a friend or a family member voicing a strong opinion ask them to explain and really listen.  If you respond, you respond with a better idea of the humanity behind the comment.  This world is full of ways to drive us apart and build walls through “othering.”  The only way that we can bring people together is to understand the truth of the reality of others.   We ask our students to do it all the time.Seek out others you may not always interact with and start a conversation.  We should begin to take our own advice listen to their stories of other who are different than ourselves.

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