I believe in the power of sympathy, and even more in the power of empathy. I believe that empathy pushes people to do great things for one another, and that it is one of the most admirable and respectable qualities a person can have.
Every time I see those pictures of starving children in a third world country, I think, “wow.” How can we both be living on the same planet? But this is the world I live in, and the world they also live in. And I feel bad for them, I feel sympathy. But there is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is when you actually put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You feel what they are feeling, and you gain a unique and powerful sense of understanding from that feeling. You want to be there, to help those children because you can see inside and feel their pain. It’s a lot harder to be empathetic, but I really think it’s important to try. When people take the time to reach out, and to open their hearts to another, they are setting a good example for the world.
When I was 13 years old I took an art class at my school. One of our projects was drawing portraits of children who lived in an orphanage in El Salvador. I walked into the classroom one day and saw 15-20 smiling faces staring up at us from the table. My first impression was “oh, they’re so cute!” But then the teacher explained to us that the children were in an orphanage because their parents had died from AIDs, and that many of them had AIDs too. It was overwhelming. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know what to think.
We each picked one child, one little face that was calling out for someone who cared. I picked a little boy named Jonathan. I wanted to make his portrait perfect, because I could feel the suffering in his heart. I wanted to be there, to make it better for him, and I believe that determination was driven by my empathy for him.
If every person tried a little harder to listen, they would discover so many important things about the world. There are so many people in this world who need help, and whose voices just want to be heard. Whether their needs be big or small, there’s always room for another caring mind, and there’s always someone who needs someone else to listen. I believe that it’s honorable when people aren’t afraid to take that challenge, to feel empathy for the benefit of others.
One person alone can’t save the world. One person alone can’t help everyone in need. But one person alone can open their heart, and listen. They can extend a caring and welcoming hand, or a shoulder to cry on. And if one person could set that kind of example for the world, many more would follow. This I believe.