I am predominately a thinking person. My wife endearingly calls me a robot because when situations arise that would for some evoke deep feelings, I tend to respond with logic rather than comfort. In a conversation with a friend recently, I was explaining how I cannot understand some people’s anxiety especially those where that anxiety leads to them being paralyzed. There is so many people that I just don’t understand. I do not feel what they feel. I don’t think how they think. Because of this I have tended to assume I cannot empathize with these folks because so much of their situation was based on how they would feel and I am unable to feel the same way. If I can’t put myself in their shoes, then I cannot have empathy for them.
I was thrown off guard though, because that is how I responded in this conversation which they responded by saying “then how do you Nathan have such overwhelming empathy for those who are oppressed and marginalized without experiencing the trauma of oppression and marginalization yourself?” I think this was a very good question. The problem with this as well though is that I am very privileged and I really have nothing in common with the ‘oppressed and marginalized.’ I can in no way put myself in their shoes. In many ways, I am complicit in the systems that keep them the way they are. So why then do I still argue on their behalf or aim to do right by them? Why do I try to change the systems? Why do I seem to care so much? Maybe I am empathetic after all?
Maybe there is two kinds of empathy. There is the feeling kind and there is the thinking kind. Even though I could not in a million years understand the suffering of those who are oppressed, I can look at the situation and see the injustice and attempt reconciliation and justice. I cannot feel what they feel, but I can think and validate how they feel by how I think.
There is this famous video that goes around on the internet to explain the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Here empathy is “hey I know what it’s like down here, and you are not alone.” And this can be good. But I rarely can say that to someone. I can’t say that to the mother who had their kids taken away from CAS or the child who lost their sibling or to the couple whose marriage just dissolved. Because I don’t know what it’s like down there. Her main point in this video is that empathy is all about connection rather than trying to fix things. Which I agree with her, but I also think that people don’t just connect through feelings. Maybe connect through thinking. So maybe there is a different kind of empathy. One that isn’t in between just two people sharing their feelings and going through something together.
I get that it is my ‘fixing’ personality that drives this kind of empathy as well but it’s also because I am not the kind of person that accepts other’s ‘feeling empathy’ very well. I do not want someone just to say ‘man, that sucks, I can see why that is so hard for you right now’ and then give me a hug. That is patronizing to me. Rather, I need someone to be thoughtfully empathetic with me. I need them to see the situation I am in rationally and work alongside of me towards a solution. Is this not still empathy? Of course I understand that there are some things (like the death of a loved one) that don’t have solutions and need something different – but there is also many that do and might need to have a whole different kind of connection than simply two people who connect through their feelings. For thinking people, we may need some thinking empathy, one that engages us in the way that we process the world. It is still about connection, but many people connect through thinking and reason just as much as they do through feelings.