If you had to teach people one thing that was important to you, what would your lesson be? How to cook? How to draw? How to remember where you parked at the mall? Sign me up for that class, please.
7 years ago when I was in third grade, the kids in my class had the chance to get up in front of everyone and teach something to each other. And I remember this day very clearly because I took it upon myself to teach the class how to draw. Now, even though I don’t remember if I taught my friends how to draw a dog, or a dolphin, or a duck, I knew that it was going to be the best day ever because my classmates would finally stop drawing ugly stick animals. So I proudly stood in front of the whiteboard and carefully drew the best animals I could, step by step. When my turn was over, I sat down and listened to the next person to teach the class how to put on a swim cap, and I guess the story ends there.
As you can imagine, I’ve come a long way since third grade. I’m sure you have too. But I can’t think of a time since that day that I’ve taught a group of people something that I truly care about. And that’s sad because there is so much that I want people to know. About me, about each other, and about life in general. But in the real world, we aren’t just handed opportunities to sit everyone down and teach them something. We have to make those opportunities for ourselves. So, 7 years later, here I am, writing to you. I may not have a whiteboard, or a worksheet, or a presentation, but that’s okay; there won’t be a test on what I say. All I ask is that you read my thoughts and try to learn.
Below is something that I wrote a little while ago. I’m calling it “If I could teach the world,” because it’s about what I would do if I could teach the world. Original, right?
If I could teach the world, I would teach it empathy. Because a world without empathy is a world filled with people who can’t understand one another, and there’s no point in a world like that.
I want to teach people to show empathy because, without it, they can only comprehend what’s visible. And there is so much more to all of us than what’s on the outside. Without empathy, we see the shell of a person, and we can only understand what’s within the contents of that shell. But inside that shell there are ideas. There are feelings. There are memories. There is pain. But without empathy, we can’t understand anything inside that shell because we are too focused on the shell itself.
I’ve realized that often times, a person’s shell is a lie. On the outside, I look healthy. But on the inside, I am struggling to feel good. Now, you might be thinking it would be much easier to just teach people about chronic illness than to teach them to have empathy. But not everyone is interested in the science of my disease. Not everyone will think my Crohn’s jokes are funny. However, everyone can try to understand what my life is like.
And here’s the thing with empathy: it’s all about understanding other people by putting yourself in their shoes. With that being said, you don’t have to live someone else’s life to understand how they live. And you don’t have to see what’s inside someone else’s shell to believe that it’s there.
I don’t want people to live my life; I want them to understand it. And people don’t need to see the challenges I face to believe that they’re there.
By now you are probably thinking, “that’s great that empathy is all about understanding and believing and whatever, but how do I do that?”
Well, lucky for you, I have created a cheesy little acronym to help you become more empathetic. It goes like this:
E – Evaluate. Think about someone’s actions/body language and reasons why they might be behaving that way.
M – Mindfulness. Be mindful of how a person is feeling beyond what you can see on the outside. Also, realize that while something like a paper may seem small to you, it might be a big deal for someone else, so think about how this person specifically perceives their situation.
P – Pretend. Imagine that you are that person for a minute. How would you want someone to respond?
A – Ask. If you don’t know how someone is feeling, ask them! Don’t assume that a person is fine just because they look ok.
T – Think. Reflect on whether your attitude towards this person has shown them that you understand and/or feel what they are experiencing. If not, repeat steps P and A.
H – Help. Rather than feel bad for someone, ask them if there is something you can do to help them feel better or provide some words of encouragement.
Y – Yay! You have shown this person empathy and hopefully helped them feel more understood.
So, the next time your friend cancels plans because they’re tired, don’t assume they are being lazy or rude. You don’t know what tired feels like to someone else, but you can be understanding and supportive of their decision to rest because you’d want that reaction from them if you were in their place.
And as you go about your day, think about the people around you and what they might be dealing with. And when you’re observing or interacting with others, think about how they feel inside and put yourself into their shell; it just might change the way you see things.