The literal definition to empathy is the ability to understand & share the feelings of others. On merely reading the definition, you don’t get the deep underlying message of it. Mind you, this is one of the most profound human feeling that one can possess. It has a deep connotation that is often given short shrift by those who don’t really care to understand its true meaning since it requires a perceptive understanding of human behavior driven by a spectrum of emotions ranging from envy, rage to love, affection & a lot more.
Lord Mahaveera, the 24th Tirthankar to the Jain Community stated, Empathy(Samyak) is an emotion that differentiates a human from other species. With regards to Empathy, he drew a slew of conclusions for humans to better understand it & adopt it in their way of life. Empathy is very different from the emotion ‘Sympathy’ or ‘pity’. The former means to understand others while the latter means sorrow for the misfortunes of others. Human beings, with their convoluted & inexplicable behavior & their innate selfish tendencies, often draw a false equivalence between the above two emotions. Lord Mahveera stated that the sheer ability to understand people from a position of privilege is far more receptive than the ability to understand them when they are in obvious pain or misery.
Empathy calls for understanding people in all the possible scenarios and not just when they are in pain or misery. This is because, we humans normally behave in a consistent manner when subjected to agony but when we have more choices from a position of privilege, often our decisions are motivated by our latent desires & wishes. We tend to be unreasonable to others in our decision making, causing a wide-range of emotions from bitterness to anger, to envy, from the people who are directly or indirectly affected by the decision. Here, exhibiting empathy towards others is of utmost importance. Whether you are one inflicting unintended distress to others or you are subject of that distress. Empathy, helps us in reaching common ground, if not with the perpetrator but with our ego, aiding us in reconciling with the limited options at our grace & choosing the most appropriate one.
The primary difference between Sympathy & Empathy is visible not when you are at peace with yourself feeling pity & sorry for the misfortunes of the underprivileged ones, but when you are affected negatively by someone & yet choosing to maintain your calm by trying to analyze & understand the situation rather than satiating the irresistible desire to respond back. Empathy is a warrior of difficult times, it tests your patience, your ability to grasp situation especially when things go south, & your desire to understand the whimsical living beings around you without bearing a shred of bitterness in your heart.
In fact, Lord Mahaveera goes on to expound that the cornerstone of basic virtues required of any living being to elevate & become a Tirthankar is Empathy. Unless one is empathetic towards every living being, one cannot understand the True meaning of life & will always be stuck in the worldly affairs of happiness, sorrows, envy, arrogance etc. To liberate from the clutches of these emotions & attain nirvana, one needs to first whole-heartedly espouse Empathy & practice it in his/her daily life. Though this emotion is ephemeral, & sustaining such a novel & powerful emotion requires a lot more than willpower. It requires conscious efforts to keep this emotion alive in the face of adversity because our rage & ego often gets the better of us. Our anger & agony seldom renders us in a calm state of mind where we can determine what’s right & what’s not. It also requires understanding people in the way that we have never done before. To go an extra mile & think from their perspective.
Empathy liberates your soul. It not only differentiates you from other living beings, but also from the human beings around. In this world of excessive hubris & vanity, Empathy has the power of keeping you grounded. Tolerance is an intrinsic factor of Empathy. Without being tolerant one cannot expect to manifest empathy. Tolerance shapes your behavior towards others in the demanding situation, it is easy to show indifference when things don’t bother us but once they start bothering us, it is the tolerance that keeps us in check. As someone has rightly said, a man’s character is judged by the way he reacts in a crunch situation & this character of his is defined by one of the very few basic virtues that include empathy.