You’ve probably noticed that things are pretty tense in North America at the moment.
Families being torn from their children at the US border—and the Bible being grossly misused to justify it. Pipelines to be expanded on Indigenous lands. Antagonism over trade. Ongoing racial tensions. More mass shootings. Xenophobic travel bans. Dissonance over gun control—just to name a few.
We are deeply divided.
We are bitterly broken.
We’re not making space for each other. We’re unwilling to engage in dialogue because we think there’s no possible merit in the opinion of our opponents. We don’t want our views and values to be challenged, so we get angry, we point fingers, we shut down—leaving us even more divided and broken.
As far as I know, there are no singular solutions or easy antidotes for our fragmentation. But I do think there’s hope for us, and I think it starts with something fairly simple.
Seek First to Understand
In Dylan Marron’s powerful TED Talk, when referring to the bullying he’s experienced as a gay man, he remarks: “Sometimes, the most subversive thing you [can] do [is] to actually speak with the people you disagree with, and not simply at them.”
He’s talking about empathy. And it can be just as revolutionary in our everyday lives as it can be institutionally within systems like justice, politics, interfaith dialogue, and international relations.
We're not just talking about warm, fuzzy feelings here. Forbes considers empathy to be a key leadership skill. Harvard Business Review argues it’s a necessary aspect of product development. Research shows that empathy is key to political persuasion. And for those who look to their faith for guidance, religious texts are often filled with messages of empathy.
But as we unpack what empathy means exactly, let’s first address what it is not.
Empathy is NOT sympathy.
Sympathy comes from a place of unintended superiority. It says: “Poor you. I can’t relate. Let me pity you from afar.” It usually leaves us feeling more isolated than comforted.
Empathy is NOT about our perspective.
It’s not about placing our own values and moral standards on someone else. It’s not about our perception of rightness or wrongness. It can’t work if we refuse to look at the world through any lens but our own.
Empathy does NOT mean we’re giving approval.
And this might be what we misunderstand the most. Believe it or not, you don’t have to agree with someone to show them empathy. You don’t have to be on the same page politically. You don’t have to belong to the same denomination or share a faith at all. Frankly, you don’t even have to like someone to show them empathy.
Because when we practice empathy, it’s not about us at all.
Dr. Stephen Covey suggests that one of the key practices of highly effective people is the ability to “seek first to understand, then be understood”. And that's what empathy is all about. It's surrendering our own biases, opinions, and framework for how we interpret the world in order to understand the situation of someone else.
It's simple, yet profound. It costs us nothing, but it can change everything.
And yet it's hard, because we'd rather not enter the uncomfortable space of learning what it's like to be someone else—especially someone with a worldview that contradicts ours.
No, we don’t all sit on the same side of the political, moral, cultural, and theological continuum. More and more, I’m finding my belief systems clash even with people who belong to the same circles as I do. But that’s exactly why we need empathy—because it cuts through our differences and hones in on the one thing we have in common: our humanity.
Empathy acknowledges that we’re all humans trying to do the best we can.
It accepts we’ve all made mistakes.
It recognizes we’ve all felt loss or grief or heartache and knew how lonely we felt in it.
It knows we’ve all felt hurt or misunderstood or remorseful and just needed someone to listen.
Empathy says, “That sounds really painful” not “You should have done this instead.”
It asks to hear more of their story instead of filling in the blanks ourselves.
It affirms feelings, not minimizes them.
In this short video, Brene Brown reminds us that empathy is all about connecting, not having the "right response or all the answers. Empathy doesn’t require us to be certified therapists. In fact, I think empathy works best when we give no advice at all. Isn't there an arrogance in thinking we know what’s best for someone else?
There may be a point in time when guidance is useful, but usually not in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. I have seen this time and time again in my vocation within the justice sphere. In my experience, one of the most damaging things we could tell a woman leaving the sex trade is that her behaviour was morally wrong and that she needs to find Jesus. The last thing a survivor of domestic violence wants to hear is that they should’ve left sooner. The least helpful thing a victim of labour trafficking could be told is that they should’ve known better than be duped by an unscrupulous employer.
Judgment disguised as advice often does more harm than good.
Sometimes, the greatest gift we can give someone—whether they’re a close friend or a survivor of trauma or a co-worker we barely know—is to sit with them in the muck and listen. Without judgment. Without assumptions. Without any other motivation but to hear their story. All it requires of us is to be human.
A Starting Point
If empathy is so simple and yet so profound, why don’t we see more of it?
When we reject empathy, I don’t think it’s necessarily out of cruelty. I think the bigger barrier is ego. We fear that if we enter the world of someone who looks or thinks or lives differently from us, then we’re compromising our opposing belief systems. We’re condoning choices or behaviours or lifestyles we otherwise dispute. We're somehow losing a piece of our identity as we learn more about theirs.
But if that’s the case—if we truly refuse to sit with people or groups we disagree with out of fear it endorses their behaviour—then the issue isn’t about “them" at all. It’s about us. It’s about our pride and insecurities. It’s about our stubborn need to be right, to be in control. It’s our cowardly way of avoiding the discomfort of being exposed to perspectives that might challenge our tightly held beliefs.
Here’s the truth: we can keep our boundaries and stay true to ourselves while still engaging in empathy.
That might look like a person who’s pro-life acknowledging that a woman who just had an abortion may have made the most difficult decision in her life—because grief is grief.
It might be a Christian going to an LGBTQ+ cultural competency training—because all humans have value.
It might be hearing out a friend who works at a fast-food restaurant about the awful morning they had at work—because we all have bad days.
It might be being there for a friend going through a breakup, even if you didn’t agree with the relationship—because that’s what love does.
Empathy has the potential to be transformative—and not only in relationships and in our communities, but in domestic and global affairs.
And that’s why I wonder what might happen if the President chose to engage in empathy. I wonder what it would mean to immigrant parents separated from their children at the border if he acknowledged their distress and pain, even for a moment. Of course, that wouldn’t be enough—it would need to be accompanied by substantial policy change to be truly effective. But wouldn’t it be powerful if the President put a pause on his us-versus-them rhetoric to listen and to acknowledge their shared humanity—especially as someone both born of an immigrant and married to one?
What would this mean for other sectors of society and life?
What would it mean for the LGBTQ+ community if the church stopped to listen?
What would it mean for a woman who has been sexually abused if the world stopped asking what she wore or how much she drank or how she behaved and said instead: “Tell me your story. I believe you. I’m so sorry you went through that.”
How might the world respond if the United States made space for people from Muslim countries instead of banning them?
How would dynamics in our work culture shift if we were more intentional about seeking to understand each other, especially at the management level?
What would it mean for the reconciliation process if our systems of education, law, and governance led with Indigenous stories and perspectives?
In no way am I suggesting that practicing empathy will suddenly solve systemic injustice and political polarization and difficult relationships. But it DOES provide us with a starting point. It gives us a platform for dialogue. It’s a way to gain deeper insight into the nuances of complex problems. It helps us brings a little hope, health, and healing to our division.
And the best part of all: it’s something we all have the capacity to partake in, as long as we have the willingness.