The Important Things In Life; A Sympathetic Discussion of Empathy

When I find it difficult it to sleep, I often resort to the colloquial method of counting sheep and, suffice it to say, that almost never works (and when it does, it’s only because I get annoyed with the sheep and stop trying). Luckily for me (and unluckily for my already eccentric bout of insomnia) I think up more strategies to enter the state of blissful slumber that many constantly yearn for and, again, once these new attempts fail, I resort to a last ditch effort (something of a “Born to Run”-esque plan) where I try to come with article ideas. Over the past few days, or rather, over the past few weeks, one thought has always been at the forefront of my backlogged mind: the important things. Or, better yet, the important of discussing and analyzing the important things, and, most importantly, writing about them to bring them to the attention of myself and others. Well, I can certainly say I’ve tried, and the universe knows I want to, but the fact of the matter is that, no matter how hard I may try and no matter how long I spend looking at a blank OpenOffice.org Writer document, I can’t talk about the important things. In fact, over the course of 3 or so months (I’m sure the dates don’t seem to add up, but it’s only been a recent thought to really give it my all; though I do digress), I’ve tried to talk about the important things over 37 times and each time I’ve failed, choosing to write a new article over trying to figure out a clever way to discuss them.

The thing is, however, that no matter how much time and effort I give up trying to talk about the important things, I will continue to fail. First of all, the “Important” things are very fluid; talk to a university student cramming for a final exam and then talk to a parent struggling to put food on the table and then talk to a five year old and you’ll see that each of them has a different set of priorities and list of responsibilities to cater to. Suffice it to say, each of them has a different set of important things and, more often than naught, these priorities to do not coexist. The university student is focusing on their future while the parent is struggling with the future of another human being while the five year old is trying to take in everything around them; their priorities very rarely coexist or intermingle which is why it’s so difficult to even begin discussing the “Important” things. However, varying priorities and differing responsibilities only do so much to divide a consensus, which leads to the next, and perhaps most important, fact when it comes to the “Important” things: sympathy and empathy are two very different things.

Obviously, and logically speaking, dictionaries, encyclopaedias and humans all have different definitions of the words, and I’m sure mine will differ from another’s but, for the intents and purposes of this article, sympathy is the understanding of another human being and their scenario while empathy is the deconstruction and reconstruction of one’s emotions to become closer to another human being and their place in the universe. Put simply, I sympathize with a hungry human when I can understand their hunger by comparing my experiences to theirs. However, I empathize with the hungry human when I am able to, quite often literally, imagine myself in their place; I empathize with a starving human when I am able to pinpoint an exact moment in my life when I have been in their shoes (hungry and wanting food) and am able to describe it in vivid detail and, most importantly, come (even if it’s a minute distance) closer to being that hungry human. Which is, interestingly enough, why empathy and sympathy impede and stop us from being able to talk about “Important” things.

We often sympathize, but very rarely do we empathize, and the reason is actually quite simple: it’s far easier to imagine what it’s like to be set on fire than it is to set yourself on fire to understand the pain. Actually, that example is a bit too extreme; what, I suppose, is a better thing to say is this: it’s easier to show sympathy then it is to give empathy because, once again, empathy requires something to be given, instead of just displayed. Sympathy, annoyingly, is the point in our lives when we stop and look at someone in a bad situation and state that “If we were in their shoes, we’d do something differently.” Empathy, however, is when we realize “No, if we were in their shoes, we wouldn’t do anything differently because we wouldn’t be able to.” Empathy is realizing that no matter what we think we might be able to do in someone else’s shoes, and no matter what we think is a better option (or the right thing to do), the truth is that under the exact same circumstances, we’d be able to change nothing. Empathy is realizing that there really are no other options; empathy is a difficult thing to give because it means having to stop believing that there is another, more accurate route, and start accepting that the only remaining path is the one straight ahead.

Which is why the “Important” things are so difficult to get in touch with and even more difficult to discuss. However, the point is this: different people have different priorities, but once we are able to empathize with them, we get just that one step closer to really understanding them, and their motives (whether positive or negative) and that, quite frankly, is a lot more than anyone can hope for. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to the question “How can we empathize more” and I, quite genuinely, can’t give any solutions to that problem. However, I will conclude by stating this: the important things in life are very rarely as such. The important things, whether they be work, or money, or politics, or religion, or medicine, or family, or friends, or fame, notoriety, or infamy, or anything in between, only really serve to push us apart. The important things cause us to sympathize with other humans and that is all.

The really important things are the things we take for granted on a daily basis; the things that bring us together as a species, or as members of a vast and lonely universe. The things like being able to wake up to another day (no matter how desolate or destitute) and being able to breathe in air, all the while being thankful (to a god, or to another human being; take your pick at this point) for having another day of life (and being grateful for it); these are the things that bring us together and these are the things that allow us to empathize. The small things, the little things and the ordinary things are the really important things and, quite frankly, that’s why the “Important” things are so difficult to discuss. It’s not that they’re not there, it’s just that we can never seem to focus on the stuff that really matters: each other.

As always, this has been your Admin; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-EK

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