What is empathy?

Is it comforting a crying friend? Or is it crying with this friend because you feel their pain? The answer to these questions is a complicated one. But hidden in this answer is the secret to a harmonious society. There are a lot of definitions of empathy. Most of these definitions encourage to put oneself in someone else’s shoes to understand the emotional state of that person. Simple enough, right? But a lot of us are not able to do that. Because if we had been able to empathize in its true sense, then there would have been far less suffering around us.

Empathy is a primitive response in us.

Evolutionary psychology claims that infants bond with their mothers due to empathetic responses to their mother’s emotional state. These empathetic responses are inborn and they have biological basis such as mirror neurons. If empathy is part of human nature, then how is a majority of us are struggling with it? And more importantly, how can empathy as a praxis make Pakistan better?

To answer the first question; let’s look into a possible premise upon which empathy grows.

Illustration: Penelope Dullaghan

Empathy grows on a sense of similarity. This might sound counter-intuitive. This is because most of the time while defining empathy, it is said that one must imagine someone else’s pain while keeping in mind that the pain is not one’s own. While this is true, in order to empathize it is also necessary to tap into one’s own experience. This is where similarity comes in. When one can comprehend cognitively that the person in front of them might have different problems but similar emotional pain, only then can one even try to understand what a person might be going through. For example, if someone is going through the loss of a parent, to understand their emotional state it is not necessary that you should also have suffered the same loss. By recalling how you felt or would feel if you ever lost a loved one, you can somewhat resonate with their pain. Once you understand someone’s pain, kindness and compassion follow naturally.

We have divided ourselves into groups based on religion, social standing, gender, and political views. This grouping has incorporated in us, a sense of entitlement and has removed the sense of familiarity. We come to believe that our suffering is more meaningful than others because we belong to a certain sect. This belief takes its worst form when we start to think that lives of others are worthless because they are not of our own group. So, the majority of Pakistanis are not able to empathize because they think they are different and superior in their sufferings.

The standard responses we as a society have to difficult situations are along the following lines:

‘I lost my family at the hands of a person of a certain sect, why not go gun down some innocent people so a lot of others of that sect will lose their families’

 ‘Meesha Shafi is accusing Ali Zafar of sexual harassment, she must want attention, let’s bash her she deserves it, that shameless woman’

’20 students died in Neelum valley,  they were being disobedient to God, they deserved it.’

‘Mass killings based on religion, let me put in my few words of hate too so that their families feel worse’.

Image Source: Welldoing.com

There are two things common in all these statements; first is the dehumanization of the other person and the second is the sense of being justified in inflicting pain on others because of false self-righteousness. This self-righteousness drives our sense of superiority and lack of empathy.

You might not approve of the disobedient young girls and guys going to a trip together (like your disapproval matters anyway), that does not mean their families are not hurting for their untimely demise. Believe it or not, obedient or disobedient, parents are hurt when their children die. It’s a human emotion, as raw as they get. It is because we think of others in terms of Shia, Sunni, PTI, PML-N, man, or woman rather than humans that we tend to forget that others hurt like we do. If we realize this, we will be kinder in our actions and words. Pakistan needs to become a more forgiving and compassionate community if we want to break the vicious cycle of physical and verbal violence around us. Empathy based on shared experience of being human is the key to compassion and consequently a harmonious society.

*Feature Image Source: Pinterest*


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