The Art of Empathy
- Friday, August 27, 2004
No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted – Aesop
Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything good in the world. – Helen Keller
Angela teetered as she walked across a medical conference room, thighs chafing, sweat glands sweating. She tried to squeeze into a regular-size chair, but her lumpy hips snagged on the arms. She moved to an extrawide armless chair, but then she couldn’t cross her plumped-out legs.
A dietitian helped her climb aboard a stationary bicycle that had been fitted with an oversize seat. But when Angela tried to pedal, thick, doughy rolls of abdominal tissue pressed against her fleshy thighs, impeding movement.
“Every move I made was an effort,” Angela, 35, later admitted. By then, however, she was slimmed down to her actual weight: 110 pounds.
Angela had been zipped into a bulky beige “empathy suit,” designed to help medical personnel better understand the plight of their obese patients. The suit weighs only 30 pounds, but it feels heavier, and effectively blimps out small, low-fat people like Angela. Its sheer heft and bulk is intended to give them a new, deepened understanding of the workaday world of the obese.
Does it work? You bet. Angela saw first hand that even a simple movement such as walking may be challenging for the obese. Having worn the suit “makes me feel more respectful, more aware of their feelings,” she says.
That’s the power of self-giving love – putting oneself in the skin of another. Take any profession…teaching second graders, for example. You can improve a teacher’s effectiveness by having her walk through her classroom on her knees. As she sees that space from a second grader’s perspective, she will be better equipped to teach them.
Or how about serving fast food? The major chains spend bundles of money sending “fake customers” into their stores to see it as they do. Advertising firms on Madison Avenue make their living by putting themselves in the customer’s shoes.
Growing churches are growing because they study the experience of a first-time visitor, and the pastor imagines what it is like to sit in the pew.
Disney World’s “cast members” know that guests will average sixty contact opportunities in a single day at their theme park, and they want to make each of them a magic moment; so they continually work at empathizing with families.
And, of course, a counselor wouldn’t last a day without practicing empathy. How well we know!
The point is that empathy – the ability to accurately see the world through another’s eyes – is at the heart of true understanding and the ability to extend self-giving love. Whether it be in medicine, business, education, or entertainment, empathy is a major determiner of success. More importantly, when it comes to our most important relationships, empathy is essential. Without empathy, healthy relationships are impossible. Self-giving love is null and void.
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