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The importance of empathy

Maverick Notes


GENTRYEmpathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Most of us have experienced some sort of empathy, even if it’s only on the most primal level. You meet a child excited about a finger-painting they made in kindergarten class, and you feel happy for them. You see your friend crying over a relationship that just ended, and you feel that sadness too.

But empathy isn’t just an ability to personally feel for another person; it’s a powerful tool that can be used to understand a situation, and I believe it has the potential to resolve global conflicts.

I want to preface the rest of this with an important distinction: Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is an understanding of the rationale behind an action; sympathy is a belief that the action is morally correct.

The two sometimes go hand in hand, but in cases where empathy is used to understand the perpetrator of a tragedy, sympathy does not always accompany it.

I’ve formed most of my opinions on empathy from two TED Talks that I watched in school: “A Radical Experiment in Empathy,” by sociologist Sam Richards, and “The Danger of a Single Story,” by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I highly recommend you watch both of them, because the 40 minutes you’d spend would be well worth it.

“A Radical Experiment in Empathy” merits its title, since the subject matter is quite controversial. At the core of Richards’ argument is the belief that we need to be empathetic toward everyone. He says this universal empathy will create a network of viewpoints on a particular issue that allows for a holistic consideration of conflicts.

Richards emphasizes that empathy is particularly necessary when it feels uncomfortable to be empathetic.

Arguably, he uses the most controversial example to demonstrate his point, asking the American audience to put themselves in the shoes of an Iraqi man who killed U.S. soldiers, explaining that this man sees the shooting as a way to protect his children, his family and his country. This isn’t easy to do, and, frankly, I was unable to empathize with him.

However, Richards provides a hypothetical, analogous situation that facilitates empathy, one that follows the same storyline as that between the U.S. and Iraq. He proposes a theoretical scenario in which a foreign nation takes coal from northeastern states, using our resources for their own gain.

Richards asks how we would feel in that situation: “You know why they’re here, and you know what they’re doing here. And you just feel the anger and you feel the fear.”

A man who lashed out against the soldiers from this nation would perceive himself as a hero, a protector of his country. This man would be acting on his anger instead of being complacent in the theft of resources. Richards argues that this is the exact same scenario as the one in Iraq; the U.S. took oil from Iraqi soil for a personal agenda, and so a man who attacked U.S. soldiers, the perceived instigators, would perceive himself as a hero.

Richards concludes with a plea for empathy, asking the audience to do the same as they did with the Iraqi insurgent with everyone else they want to understand.

Adichie’s talk is less controversial than Richards’, but just as significant. She speaks out against the single story, which she defines as a single assumption about a person that’s used to define their entire personality.

Adichie was the victim of the single story herself; as a Nigerian college student in America, her roommate assumed she spoke no English, didn’t know how to use a stove and listened to “tribal music.”

To combat the single story, she says, we need to know all of the stories. She beautifully concludes her TED Talk with the following statement: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Combating the single story requires empathy, because through empathy one can fully understand someone’s backstory.

I want to give my own take on empathy, based on my personal experience. Take the following example that I experience all the time: I’m driving down a road, and someone ahead of me is going 10 mph under the speed limit. I get annoyed, because I’m in a rush. Maybe I even honk at them.

Here’s where empathy is vital, and how both Adichie’s and Richards’ beliefs are applicable. I don’t know this person’s backstory.

I assume that they’re a bad driver, but the potential realities are endless. Maybe they just got their permit; maybe they aren’t from the city and are trying to find their way around; maybe they’ve crashed badly before and are wary of driving fast. I assigned a single story to them based on their driving skills, and through empathy I might understand better why they’re driving slowly.

That’s a basic example of how empathy can be used, and all it took was a small amount of understanding. Just imagine how it could be used to tackle global conflicts.

Just imagine how leaders could resolve conflicts with other nations by understanding, through empathy, the other side’s point of view.

Richards’ example of empathy towards an Iraqi insurgent demonstrates just how powerful it can be. If someone is able to empathize with an enemy, then peaceful, diplomatic resolutions are bound to follow.

I’m striving to be more empathetic toward people after watching these TED Talks, and I believe that everyone should endeavor to do the same.

Riverdale High School senior Brian Gentry is one of two Maverick Notes columnists for The Review. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..