What is Empathy?
You sit at your desk. Your nerves get to you. The teacher is handing back that major test. Whether the mark is a pass or fail, it hits with assurance when the paper lands in front of you. But you are not alone. There are two dozen other students also at their desk, also nervous, also about to get struck with a grade.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com ) features the word sonder: The realization that everyone around you is living a life just as full and complex as yours; you might only notice students in the hallway from the corner of your eye, but that is also exactly how they notice you.
If you focus on the latter part, the thought is a somber one. However, by focusing on the notion that every life around you is just as complex as your own, you can work on a skill often sorely lacking and rarely taught: empathy.
Part of empathy is to know what a certain person is feeling. When a fellow student misses the ball in gym class and everyone laughs, you can understand that they are embarrassed. You learned the word at a young age and have experienced it for yourself. However, because our emotions are so hardwired to our own experience, we need to go a step further to fully empathize with that student.
The other part of empathy is to understand why a certain person is feeling the way they do. This requires trying to figure out their perspective. That student woke up that morning with hopes for the day just like you. They said goodbye to their parents just like you did, and have plans for after school just like you. They did not plan on this moment to arise and torment them.
By putting this into practice, you will react better to the behaviours that affect you. When you are doing a group project, it is easy to get angry with the partner who is not doing their fair share of work. If you can figure out their perspective, and see how they are struggling with the material, or have personal issues at home distracting them, you can find more effective ways to work through the problem.
Now, back to that major test; if it is a subject you excel at, the mark may make you want to brag. If it is not, you may want to cover it in shame. Meanwhile, the mark of the student next to you may evoke feelings of envy or mockery. Remember to challenge your perspective. You may dominate classic literature, but that student who failed next to you may dominate when measuring angles. The smartest person in the room always depends on what room you are in.
By practicing empathy, you can feel better about your own faults, and more easily work through issues with others. By making it a habit, it will help you through school and beyond.