Washington DC, United States: New Year celebrations are over-hyped to be sure, with overcrowded bars and over-priced alcohol, but the event serves as a great opportunity to reset and reassess. We set resolutions for physical health, mental acuity, and new adventures, but there’s also a chance for deeper changes, ones that permanently change our worldviews. The best resolutions stick, live with you far after the next effervescent new year. They require a specific and achievable goal, one with visible outcomes, and one that speaks to your best self. The worst resolutions emerge from a place of hate, relying on insecurities and competition to determine one’s path. After a year of hatred, nationalism, and aggression erupting worldwide, I suggest making 2018 the year of empathy.
Empathy differs from sympathy in that it requires feeling other’s emotional states and situations, rather than understanding them on a purely academic level. Empathy drives feelings of unselfish compassion and acts, sometimes, against one’s own self-interest to benefit others. It teaches us that the world is larger than ourselves through the lens of disparate interests, worldviews, and viewpoints, imparting a poignant sense of humility. Through understanding others, we learn not to diminish ourselves, but rather to connect through common humanity and intrinsic rights, taking a holistic perspective, not a heuristic, selfish one. It is also more important than sympathy as it drives action, and colors all of one’s interactions.
Empathy is the opposite of othering, the sociological tendency toward relegating those unlike us to an “outsider” or harshly whispered “them.” Othering happens across times and cultures; we other each other based on race, religion, and region. It excludes anything new and reiterates habit, regardless of its value. This psychological line sows division and creates deep divides within communities and even between friend groups. It dehumanizes other groups until they aren’t real, just cartoon monsters imagined by our frightened misunderstanding of their experiences. It’s the difference between prioritizing one’s own desires and that of the whole.
Empathy is not mutually exclusive of self-care, regardless of how it might seem. Because empathy relies on a vast emotional vocabulary, I’ve found that the more I try to understand others, even on a tertiary level, the more poignant my own introspection. Despite depression and anxiety, my desire to make others happy informs how I treat myself in many ways, though not a panacea.
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Empathy is required for almost any conscientious resolutions you might make. Environmental activism relies on empathizing with future generations from whom we would otherwise withhold natural beauty and resources. Ethical activists empathize with global workers and cannot, will not, support those who exploit them. Social justice is built on the understanding that the treatment of subjugated groups like people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and others is immoral, and then empathizing with their suffering. Empathy also works on a micro level; someone who would cut you off in traffic because he’s worried about a sick family member, the absent-minded employee who is struggling with depression, or the quiet neighbor who wants someone to reach out, join her community, but can’t find the means to do it herself. All of these people deserve your understanding. These contexts are an opportunity for compassion, for improving the world at large, or just on your block.
If we were, as a culture, to embrace empathy, we would attack divisive rhetoric with common humanity. We could resist the draw of excising those with whom we have no or few common traits, and instead embrace commonality; this would be the death of far right rhetoric and the beginning of understanding. Empathy is the force that drives the best of us, despite our worst nature. I’m ready for a year of understanding, of embracing feelings, of crying in movies and giving change to the homeless, of hugs and reaching out in the spirit of friendship first. I’m ready for less competition and jealousy, of more patience, less violence, and of less self-hatred but more understanding. I hope you’ll resolve to, with me.