The Impact of Empathy Over Time

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How far does empathy go?

One simple change in your approach as you attempt to understand someone better can set them (and you) on a completely different course. This can’t exactly be measured, but it clearly can make an impact.

Years from now, you might look back fondly on a memory of someone who made a difference in your life and reach back out to them to thank them and share how they made a difference. This is probably as close as we’ll ever get to measuring the empathy we put out there.

In college, I was asked to mentor incoming freshmen from inner-city Reading and Philadelphia. The group consisted of minority students and students with disabilities who needed help acclimated to college. This experience gave me empathy for others and shifted my perspective on helping others. Unfortunately, I cannot find the woman who ran that program to thank her for the experience!

That isn’t quite the point of empathy, is it? We don’t do it for positive reinforcement. We do it because we are trying to connect with each other. Still, time appears to play a role in the impact of our empathy. It is in the reflection of time that we see the result of our efforts.

When we examine empathy across the past, present, and future, we can see unique opportunities and challenges in each. As we move from the past into the future, the level of difficulty in exercising empathy also increases.

The Past

When we have empathy about the past, it manifests in a new perspective and action. We’ve assessed something we (or others) have done, shift our perspective of events in the past, and hopefully take actions to rectify the results in the present.

In 2020, we saw a powerful example of this as Confederate statues toppled around the country during the Black Lives Matter protests. These events are the long-overdue growing pains of the present through the change in perspective about the past and represent empathy-in-action.

This mindset is articulated in Professor Elgin Cleckey’s Next City Op-Ed:

“The time is now to keep the newfound understanding of empathy into our post-statue public spaces — where interactions such as mine become commonplace, the products of this moment of change.”

from When Confederate Monuments Fall, Action-Based Empathy Can Create Inclusive Public Spaces

Restoring the potential that was stolen from a group of people or individuals by righting the wrong comes along with this empathy. There is power when we realize we can either lift a person or a group of people up from that wrongdoing and restore the potential.

There are opposing forces, which represent the main challenge of perspective. The risk of the status quo and changing is also a powerful force. In this example, we’ve seen the opposing forces in the rise of white supremacy and violent counter-protests.

What’s interesting about empathy in the past is the power it has to impact people in the present. We can see the change if we’re brave enough to correct the wrong.

The Present

When thinking about the traditional definition of empathy, we are typically talking about something right in front of us or happening in the present.

Potential comes into play here as well if you do it right. It’s more than just giving money to a charity or a homeless person. It’s taking the time to understand that charity’s mission and acting on it through volunteering. It is understanding the homeless person and investing a bit of yourself in them by helping them get on their feet.

Consider the empathy that front line workers and first responders are trying to manifest in just day-to-day interactions with a wide range of people, from frustrated entitled shoppers to patients worried they aren’t going to make it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that wearing a mask is a way to show empathy for others and a great example of empathy in the moment.

If done right, our actions in the present can ease someone’s pain, show that we care, and restore the potential for good in others.

The opposing forces here manifest in ourselves in that split decision we make whether or not we are going to choose to engage someone else’s thoughts to change ourselves (via action or inaction). Regardless of the choice we make, we will likely get a glimpse into the result of our actions in that moment.

The Future

Here’s where things get interesting. We need to swing our perspective about the past towards the future. This is nearly impossible to do because it means imagining a future that doesn’t exist yet. There is also no way to measure empathy for the future because we’ll never get to see even a glimpse of the result.

In a world defined by quarterly earnings and annual reports, the future always seems nearer than it really is.

“Legacy. What is a Legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton

For Hamilton, it was about legacy, but for us and the challenges we are facing today, it needs to be about empathy. Empathy, real empathy, is taking actions today that will impact things you will never get to see.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about building a utopian society. I’m talking about trying to solve the issues that will affect us most this century and the ones that are coming quick – climate change, food scarcity, and equity.

We need to put ourselves in the place of some future child that is looking back at this time. That child will be either correcting our sins with their own empathy or looking back at our example.

The future represents the biggest challenge when it comes to empathy. Looking to the future involves everything difficult about empathy: challenging the status quo, changing something about ourselves, and taking a risk that our actions are going to manifest a positive change we will never see.

How far does empathy go? If you can look into the future and imagine your own impact, it can go pretty far.

In December 2020, Time Magazine named their first Kid of the Year, 15-year old Gitanjali Rao. Her words summarize the opportunity wonderfully.

Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to come up with something big.

Gitanjali Rao

So the question is, what will you do now?