What do you do when you come across an elderly person unable to cross a road with vehicles speeding past them on either side? Do you express concern to yourself and walk away? Or, will you spare a moment to place yourself in his shoes? The difference between the two defines empathy and its importance. While the former is sympathy, and that’s the most natural human response to such a situation.
Empathy, on the other hand, is a character trait that needs to be developed. To do so, efforts must begin from childhood. Parents, teachers, family and the elderly need to work actively to inculcate empathy among the young. Such efforts will invariably translate into concrete action. Which implies, the elderly person will experience empathetic behaviour, that goes beyond sympathy.
As a consequence of our DNA, and upbringing, we tend to perceive and respond uniquely to the same situation. Consider two 18-year-olds from diverse economic backgrounds. They are rewarded with Rs 5000 and granted the free will to spend it on whatever they wished to. How do you think they would spend it?
In fact, the answer doesn’t really matter. The obvious inference is that the priorities and joys of the two differ significantly, if not vastly. The real takeaway, though, is the realisation, recognition and acceptance of the difference. If the two teenagers become aware of this reality and learn to respect each other’s choices, empathy triumphs. And, empathy and its importance is a lesson well taught.
Granted that, beyond a certain age, children will get accustomed to spending a greater part of the day with friends. They will experience a change in lifestyle. New aspirations will emerge. A new purpose of life arrives, bringing with it many unexpected results. Amidst all this, there is one bedrock that binds it all-life lessons imparted by parents.
Therefore, empathy and its importance will be embedded deep in the roots of a mature adult mind, if the parents have demonstrated by means of action, from a very young age. Imagine a child with the privilege of going to a convent school, as they are colloquially called. How would it change their life if they come across a fellow child running around makeshift homes with no school-time? If it makes the child think of all that they have and fellow children don’t, parents deserve credit.
It is not enough to merely acknowledge the existence of privilege. Often, that will end up in discarding a passing thought into the bin of insignificance. An upgrade on this is mostly millennial rebel-rant that, even if symbolically strong, amounts to little significance. Having said that, it’s a good start. There is at least a vague recognition of empathy and its importance.
The most concrete of actions would be to understand and shed the privilege by being one among the underprivileged. And, this has to begin at home, or at least at school. Organising a day’s trip to an amusement park may be great for children. But, a school visit to a makeshift home or a remote government school can do wonders. Doing so will provide a perfect opportunity for children to make an attempt to see the world from multiple points of view.
Above all, the world needs to walk the path of love, demolish hate and take giant strides towards a healthy, peaceful and progressive world. Empathy-driven education and parenting form the single most essential ally in this journey. Dear parents and teachers, a small effort from you can make our children the ambassadors of the war against apathy and an empathetic world.