Empathy is defined as "the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling." Basically, it’s what we mean when we say, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Empathy is sometimes considered an emotion itself, but many psychologists believe it to be more of a cognitive ability. I consider it a character trait, because the mastery of it or just the attempt to utilize it speaks to the quality of a person.
But, no matter how good we are in our souls, it can still be the most difficult behavior to master. That’s because its stimuli are ever-changing. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding other people. We’re unique. Our life experiences, loves, fears, interests, emotions, victories and losses are distinctly and genuinely ours and ours alone. They all are, in specific ways, visceral to the individual.
We can try to understand others but too often it’s tough. We know what we know, what we’ve done. We don’t know, exactly, what others know, what others have done.
Regardless, we should try at all times when communicating with, working with and serving others.
Empathy takes on even greater importance when we’re in a position of responsibility.
For example, as a parent, we need to understand rather than be frustrated with our kids and how they see and react to the world based on their development and environment. Or, when managing an organization of part of it, we need to understand where everyone has come from, how they see the world and how the world sees them.
Sometimes, maybe more often than not, we fail in doing that.
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the leader of our entire state, failed miserably in that regard, dismissing the pain of millions of people…millions of people he is responsible for.
During one of his press conferences, in some misguided and deliberate attempt to explain why Western New York is seeing a spike in COVID cases, he said "Western New York never lived the full pain of COVID's wrath.”
That, of course, showed a total lack of empathy.
Cuomo knows his world. That would be New York City and Albany. The rest of the state? That’s not his bag; he doesn’t know Watertown from Wellsville from Williamsville.
His understanding of human suffering in its various forms is based upon that. If you are outside of his realm of understanding, you couldn’t have felt any pain. You had to have had smooth sailing. It was all rainbows and butterflies elsewhere.
Yes, it was really bad in the Tri-State area. But, things were also bad here, in death and in other ways. You can’t say that it was otherwise to those who lived and are still living it.
A friend of the family lost her husband to the virus. Twelve minutes from my house, 28 people died in a nursing home which become an epicenter for fear and loss.
My mom, a volunteer EMT, could be exposed to COVID in her calling, so, during the spring, she would see her one year-old grandbabies from a distance. That hurt her to her core.
A dear friend of mine went into a bout of deep depression because she, too, was unable to see her grandchildren.
Families weren’t able to see their parents in long-term care facilities and those within those walls saw their minds and bodies fade from that.
Those in grief couldn’t hold funerals and find needed support in friends and family.
We all know children who have become withdrawn or have developed emotional or social issues from the lack of contact with friends, family members, and the coaches and teachers who love them.
The police scanner has been alive with misery as domestic abuse and substance abuse have skyrocketed through the pandemic.
I know of someone who, because of the endless news cycle and fear-mongering, has become mentally incapacitated and won’t and can’t leave her home. So many others, at a less-debilitating scale, have developed anxiety.
Breadwinners of households across the region who, in the eyes of government, were deemed “non-essential” wondered how they would survive the lockdown and future lockdowns.
Small businesses across WNY faced existential crises. You may have seen the viral video of a local restaurateur who tearfully announced the shutdown of his sports bar two weeks ago. That video perfectly summed up 2020 for entrepreneurs. Heck, even I spent the shutdown wondering what my business would look like on the other side of it and if it would even survive to see its fiftieth year.
I could literally go on and on. But you know what you lived. You know what we lived as a region.
So, it only stands to reason that our frustration with Cuomo’s words was justified last week.
He was not empathetic -- or even sympathetic -- to what we saw and felt, what we lost and who we lost.
It’s a lesson for him.
It’s also a lesson for us.
We’re all better people if we take the time to understand others and not demean their struggles.
As they say, “the struggle is real.”
From the 23 November 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News