We’ve all heard the adage (or some variation thereof), “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” This is about developing empathy, which is in short supply in this world. If there is one thing that causes disconnects between people, it is a lack of empathy. Every time we criticize another person or group, we almost certainly are guilty of not being empathetic.
Being empathetic is not the same as being sympathetic, but most people seem to think it is. Empathy can lead to sympathy, but sympathy doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy. You can feel sorry for someone without entering into his world, or more specifically, his head. In fact, sympathy implies that you are maintaining some distance and looking at a person’s situation from the comfort of your own (superior) position. Empathy is harder to attain and harder to feel.
Months before I converted to Islam, I wrote a post about the Islamic item of clothing called the hijab. (Women’s Rights: The Headscarf.) At the time I had no idea that I was going to convert, let alone that I would ever wear the hijab myself. I felt sympathy for the women who wear it, because of the way they are viewed—and treated—by non-Muslims. They can’t “pass” as non-Muslims, or fade into the background when it’s uncomfortable to be identified as one. (For this reason, I view wearing the hijab as a mark of bravery as much as a symbol of one’s faith.)
But I can’t say that what I felt was empathy. I simply didn’t know enough about what it was like to wear the hijab, what courage it took to put it on every day, the strength of motivation that was required to wear it in a society that is ambivalent (at best) about Muslims.
I’ve heard of social experiments where non-Muslim women have put on the hijab for a period of time (usually a day or a week, at the most) in order to get some idea of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, let alone a woman who wears one (often known as a “hijabi”). That’s fine as far is it goes, but it doesn’t begin to address all the issues faced by Muslims, like finding a place to pray five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan (or learning how to pray in the first place, if you’re a convert).
I no longer wear the hijab and, in fact, am in a state of flux about exactly where I stand in the matter of religion. I still subscribe to the basic theology of Islam, but I’m undecided about how “Muslim” I’m willing to be. But I will never be sorry that I converted. Because if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have the empathy it takes to understand where Muslims are coming from. I could have studied Islam for a thousand years and it wouldn’t have taught me what I really wanted to know, which is: what is it like to be a Muslim?
Obviously we can’t convert to every religion, let alone pretend to be another race, for instance, in order to develop empathy. But there is a lot we can do to approximate walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
- We can learn another language.
- We can travel, whether it’s to a different country or another part of town.
- We can watch movies with subtitles.
- We can read, anything and everything.
- We can listen to different types of music.
- We can try different cuisines.
- We can attend a different kind of religious service.
- We can sponsor a child.
- We can invite someone to dinner.
- We can make a friend.
Anything that exposes us to another culture can help us to develop empathy. But the most important step we must take is to stop limiting ourselves to the way of life we were born into. We have to step outside of our comfort zones. We have to open ourselves up to discoveries and be willing to learn something new, preferably every day.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more foreign something seems to you, the more important it is that you embrace it.
It’s so much easier to stick to what we’re used to, to take potshots at things we don’t understand, to hang out with people who are like us. But that’s a recipe for disaster. We can see the results in our world today. What is discrimination but an attempt to prove that the group I belong to is better than the group you belong to? What is war but a refusal to admit that we all want—and have a right to—the same things: safety, security, sustenance, love, acceptance and happiness, for ourselves and those we care about?
Developing empathy is an ongoing and many-layered process. None of the suggestions above will, by themselves, help you to become deeply empathetic. But taken together, and repeated often, they will help.