This essay was first published on the original Empathy Symbol website many years ago. It still applies.
Remember the old song, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love?” Remember John Lennon’s song calling us to “Give Peace a Chance?” They were right: the world needs love and the world needs peace. But we are so far from that right now that we have to wonder, how do we get there?
Our world seems so divided: by culture, by religion, by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, by political boundaries, by money, by so many “us vs. them” factors. Wars rage between countries, and within countries. This isn’t new, of course. Humans have certainly demonstrated a willingness to kill each other in numbers large and small throughout history.
Each of us alone probably feels helpless to do much of anything about this. Some may even feel that some of these negative attitudes toward others outside their group are justified.
But there is a first step that we can all take. The pathway to love for our fellow humans, the way to peace, is empathy. Because you can’t hate, and you can’t want to hurt, a person you have come to know and understand. You can’t be indifferent to the suffering of a person, or people, you now know.
Many people come to understand others’ points of view through people they meet in their workplace, in their neighborhoods, in their schools, in their places of worship, and in other groups they join.
Perhaps a person has negative stereotypes of gay people, until “Bob,” a gay man, starts working in the next cubicle at his office. As that person gets to know Bob as an individual person; as he comes to learn about his family, his interests, his ideas; as he comes to respect the great job Bob does at work; as he finds himself enjoying Bob’s quirky sense of humor, he realizes that he can no longer sustain general negative attitudes toward gay people.
There are lots of ways to increase one’s empathy and understanding of people outside one’s own groups.
- Travel to other countries
- Read novels and nonfiction
- Watch movies and TV shows about other cultures
- Explore other points of view on the Internet
- Listen to other kinds of music
- Say “hello” and “how are you” to the clerk behind the checkout counter wearing the hajab
- Ask the lady in the wheelchair sitting next to you at the school board meeting what she thinks of the issues on the agenda
- Start a conversation with the cab driver who has a foreign accent
- Try going to a different religious service—respectfully, of course
- Send your kids to diverse schools. Invite their friends over to your house.
Spread the core value of empathy. Teach your children to be empathetic. Yes, the world has always been divided, and groups of people have always fought each other. But the difference in the twenty-first century is that the stakes are much higher, since we now have the capacity to actually destroy much of the world and most of the earth’s population. We stand poised on a tipping point, and we can go either way.
As Thomas Friedman explained so well, the world is flat now. We are all connected. People get along with each other in their neighborhoods because they know each other, and it doesn’t much matter who votes which way and who goes to what church, or doesn’t go to church at all. But the world is so interconnected now that really, our planet is one big neighborhood. Let’s get to know our neighbors.