Charles Thomas: The Lost Art of Empathy

When the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was released by the Supreme Court in late June, there was a great outcry across our nation.

That outcry was completely understandable. The Supreme Court had ruled in Dobbs that there would no longer be a recognized federal right to abortion, a right had existed for nearly 50 years since the Roe v. Wade decision. Dobbs would now allow states to outlaw abortion in any way they saw fit, and a woman’s access to abortion would depend on which state she lived in.

While I certainly understood the outcry, I was disturbed by the rhetoric that came from both sides after Dobbs was handed down. My friends who are pro-choice suggested that what really motivated pro-lifers was a desire to “control women’s bodies.” My pro-life friends implied that pro-choice folks really just wanted to “kill babies all the way up until the moment of birth.”

Many people were essentially saying that people who disagreed with them were not just wrong, but they were also evil. This demonization of the other side has been a problem in our country for a long time, but the Dobbs decision seemed to send things into overdrive.

Having now lived for a half century, I remember a time when things were different. I remember when people who disagreed could have vigorous debate about a topic and then walk away still liking the other person. In short, I remember a time when we were all better at empathy. 

Empathy is a fancy word for a simple concept: being able to understand and feel what someone else is experiencing. Empathy is the sincere attempt to step inside someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective even though it differs from your own. Empathy does not judge or shame others for feeling what they feel. It simply seeks to understand.

“In order to empathize with someone’s experience,” Brene Brown once said, “you must be willing to believe them as they see it, and not how you imagine their experience to be.”

How many of us make a habit of that today?

More of us should because we do damage to ourselves and others when we exchange empathy for demonization. We harm ourselves when we demonize others because doing so actively promotes hatred inside us. No one needs that. Demonization also harms others when people get saddled with terrible labels they do not deserve. A recent example of this is when some conservatives started to call those who are in favor of talking to young children about gender identity as “groomers,” implying that their true motivation is a desire to abuse children.

That’s as untrue as it is cruel.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I often see how destructive this inability to empathize with others can be to relationships. In our current culture of demonization, it’s easy to think your spouse is the only one to blame for your marital problems. It’s also easy to think your child is the only one who has to change when they have problems at school.

An inability to empathize and to take the opinions of others seriously not only hurts our politics, ourselves, and our closest relationships but it also restricts our intellectual advancement. None of us knows everything. In order to grow we must be open to other people’s perspectives. How will we ever find the best solutions to our problems if we don’t take people who disagree with us seriously?

In a 2015 town hall meeting in Iowa, Barack Obama spoke about the power of empathy and listening to people we disagree with. Obama said when he went to college he met “some folks who didn’t think at all like me. And, if I had an opinion about something, they’d look at me and say, ‘Well, that’s stupid.’

“And then they’d describe how they saw the world, and they might’ve had a different sense of politics, or they might have a different view about poverty, or they might have a different perspective on race, and sometimes their views would be infuriating to me. But it was because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you, and had different backgrounds than you, that I then started testing my own assumptions, and sometimes I changed my mind. Sometimes I realized, ‘You know what, maybe I’ve been too narrow minded. Maybe I didn’t take this into account. Maybe I should see this person’s perspective.’”

If developing our ability to empathize can help improve our politics, strengthen our relationships, and help us grown intellectually, why aren’t more people jumping on the empathy bandwagon? I honestly don’t know. But if you’re one of those people who think demonization works better than empathy, I’m happy to listen to you and try to understand where you’re coming from.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.