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Let's Talk About Empathy

Updated: Mar 27

Dear Asian Youth,

Something that was brought up again and again in the recent Democratic Convention was the word empathy. Something that our current president lacks. Something that our nation needs. The discussion about the word brought me back to 2016 in an interview with the then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In the interview with Barbara Walters, when asked what he would want to be known for in one word, Sanders responded with the word: compassion.

Bernie Sanders took the Democratic Party by surprise in 2016 when he led a grassroots campaign against an established Democratic politician, Hillary Clinton. While this arguably split the Democratic Party and led to Trump's win of the presidency, Bernie had shown what a growing number of people wanted: compassion, authenticity, and empathy.

The Politics of Empathy, as it's been called, are tricky waters to navigate, but it's something that has been lacking in our current government and a lot of its supporters. The modern-day Republican Party spearheaded by President Trump and several politicians that swear their unwavering loyalty to him thrive on divisive and dangerous rhetoric that seeks to make Americans fear each other.

In a time when many of us are coming to terms with the deeply-rooted racism in our society, empathy has also become a word that has been said time and time again. But what is empathy? And how can we use it to better ourselves and society?

Let's start by defining empathy. Colloquially, empathy is commonly analogized by the phrase “putting yourself in another person's shoes.” This phrase summarizes the idea of stepping in another person's shoes, by not only seeing a person's perspective, but imagining what it is like to be that person and to go through their experiences.

In a much longer definition, empathy is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In essence, empathy is the process of understanding a person’s experiences, being aware of their feelings based on those experiences and being sensitive to how those feelings and experiences affect their worldview.

Sympathy, another word which is often misinterpreted to be the same as empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.” Sympathy is the ability to relate to an experience that is shared between two people. While this is important, sympathy relies on a collective experience that isn't always shared between two people; whereas empathy is developing an understanding of a person's experience even if you haven’t experienced the same event.

When we take a look at our country in recent months, certain events have revealed a great lack of empathy from the American people. While our country is reckoning with deep systemic racism that has seeped its way into every aspect of our society, a global pandemic, and a divisive leader who incites violence, a sense of empathy is needed now more than ever.