We have empathy for those in Hurricane Harvey’s path. For nearly the past week, the country has been focused on Hurricane Harvey. We heard about the potential devastation and now we see it with our own eyes through social media, news reports and pictures. Empathy is easy in the face of major disaster. Any feeling person sees the destruction, the pain and suffering, and the acts of heroism large and small and has an emotional response. We want to help–and we should.
Natural disasters tend to bring out the best in people as our collective empathy kicks in. People on the scene pitch in to help one another. The nation at large donates. Military personnel, first responders and helpers of all stripes put in long hours of dedicated service. We talk about the impact and what we can do on individual or family levels when we are at our kitchen tables. All of this is good.
To really help our nation have resilience we need to do more on a regular basis. For our relationship to self it’s important to stretch ourselves in empathy. For our neighborhoods small and large, showing empathy routinely is necessary for our well being. How about if we all use Hurricane Harvey as a springboard to think about expanding every day empathy? What would that look like? What would it feel like? What might be possible if everyone did this? (Please note this is not a political post but rather one from a social science perspective).
What difference would it make anyway?
Psychologists know that when we do something larger than ourselves, especially for the good of others, it improves well being. Depression goes down when we get out of our own self focus and put it outward. Self esteem improves when we are part of doing good. Ever buy a coffee for the person behind you in the drive through line? Feels good doesn’t it? Small things often creates big things. Those small things can be positive or negative and then so will the big ones. Moods and behaviors can be infectious. Let’s create more of a chain reaction of empathy for all.
What does empathy look like?
First, empathy is not sympathy per se. Sympathy is feeling FOR someone else. Empathy is feeling WITH someone else, or as if having the same experience. It’s putting yourself in their reality. To increase your empathy, start with really imaging what you would think or feel if you were having the exact same reality. Can you see a perspective different than your own? Sometimes it’s not even necessary to agree with the behavior of the other person. Empathy is more about seeing that if you were in the same reality you might end up making the same or similar choice. Empathy is being able to truly understand what another feels. Empathy often takes conscious thought. Empathy can be an automatic reaction sometimes. Think about when you have been moved to tears by another person’s suffering.
How do I act from empathy?
Accept that your experience is not the only one. Learn about lots of areas of differences. Learn about different religions, different regions of the country, different racial groups, different sexual identities. Don’t act simply from a stereotype when it comes to the other gender. Understand that virtually all people want many of the same things. Top among them are health, safety and security for their families, and a sense of belonging. In our country we value freedom and that applies to those in the “other” categories too. Sometimes empathy requires that we talk to people we don’t understand. Understanding requires we really listen.
We teach our children–or at least we should–to think about how another child feels on the receiving end of some behavior. When siblings fight we try to teach them what the other person experienced so they can learn. We need to deepen this kind of teaching. Then we need to apply it to ourselves as adults.
Getting back to Harvey, how can I help?
Here are some reputable outlets for recommendations on how to help:
NPR: How you can help
Consumer Reports: Charity reviews
New York Times: Links to local agencies in TX
Forbes: Where, What and How to donate
Greater Good Networks: 100% of donations go to Harvey relief
Please also remember that many smaller communities besides Houston have been hurt by Harvey and also need your help. Just a few examples include Rockport, Port Arthur and Ingleside.