I once took a writing class with Stephen King’s first editor.
Naturally, we were all dying to know what it was like to work with this world-famous novelist who writes super-scary books. Our instructor told us that Stephen King’s talent was evident early on, but his greatest strength as a writer was his ability to create empathy.
Empathy, according to Lexico.com, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is what allows us to understand someone’s life from their perspective – to put ourselves in their shoes to feel what they are feeling.
Empathy is crucial in storytelling because it makes the audience care. It creates characters who the audience will root for, worry about, and give hours of their life to as they join them on a journey and get drawn into a story that’s bigger than themselves.
We were made to live this way: to care, to connect emotionally, and to forget ourselves for a while as we enter into someone else’s world. And though it’s magical to experience empathy for a fictional character, it’s the empathy we feel toward real life people that makes us better humans.
For some people empathy comes naturally, and for others it can be learned. We learn it through practice, by getting in the mental habit of stepping into someone else’s shoes, contemplating what it’s like to be them, and trying to understand their point of view.
Empathy is the cornerstone of strong, meaningful connections, yet our world is facing an empathy crisis. People either don’t want to or don’t know how to feel empathy toward others. In many cases, we care more about the make-believe characters in our favorite books or TV shows than the actual humans we encounter each day.
Technology aggravates the problem, especially as our online culture gets increasingly hostile and harsh. One way we learn empathy is by reading facial expressions and social cues, by seeing the hurt look on someone’s face as we say something offensive and realize it’s time to stop. With technology, however, we lose visual feedback. We miss those important clues and can hide behind screens that may entice us to type things we’d never say to someone’s face as our fingers jump ahead of our brains.
Dr. Michelle Borba is an empathy expert who wrote UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. She says research shows that when children develop empathy, they thrive in school and life. They impact their communities in positive, often extraordinary ways.
Dr. Borba also says the road to a meaningful life begins with empathy, and the Empathy Advantage is what children need most to succeed both now and later.
Unfortunately, we live in selfish times. We have a “me-centered” society that conditions us to look out for #1 and chase personal happiness without any concern of how others are impacted. Our parenting culture encourages us to make our children the center of the universe, and oftentimes, this opens the door to narcissism as children start to believe they are not just special, but rather, more special than anyone else.
We are born with a Good Samaritan instinct (even toddlers can comfort others and act surprisingly kind at young ages), but around age 5, Dr. Borba says, our caring nature starts to slip. If children don’t exercise their helping muscles, those muscles lose power.
So how do we foster empathy in a world that celebrates me over we? How do we cultivate the Empathy Advantage in our children and ourselves? How do we counter the narcissism that defines modern-day society?
First, we make empathy a priority conversation at home. And second, we intentionally build our empathy muscles by making a daily habit of stepping into someone else’s shoes.
It may be someone we admire – or not. Even if a person is rude or dismissive, we can use empathy to ask ourselves, “What might be going on in their life to make them act that way? What if their behavior is not about me, but rather, an overreaction to an internal struggle?”
I have a friend whose father showed empathy at the least expected time. While on his deathbed at the hospital, he was neglected one night by the nurse on duty. He was in pain and kept calling, yet his nurse never came.
The next morning, when the doctor heard what happened, he was upset and apologetic. He assured the family that he’d assign another nurse, yet my friend’s father said, “No. I want this to be a lesson for my grandchildren.”
He then asked to speak to the nurse who neglected him. He told her, “I had a really, really bad night last night, and something tells me that you did too. Would you like to talk about it?”
From that question, the floodgates opened. The nurse poured out her heart and shared some struggles she was wrestling with. While her struggles certainly did not excuse her negligence, they did explain it. From that moment on, she and my friend’s father forged a friendship. She checked on him faithfully, even as she worked other units, until the day he passed away. She became a better person and a better nurse because of him.
That is the power of empathy. That is what happens when we forget about our life temporarily and listen to someone’s story. If a man on his deathbed can do this, surely the rest of us can too.
Empathy is a muscle that craves exercise. We grow it by acting on our Good Samaritan instincts, using our hard experiences to comfort others, and caring more about real life people than characters that get made up.
Though most of us aren’t horror writers like Stephen King, we can take a page from his empathy playbook. We can get out of our heads to imagine life as other people and try to comprehend what it’s like to be them.
As adults, we set the bar for empathy. We create the climate that trickles down to playgrounds, schools, and social media. So if we want toddlers who keep their caring nature, teenagers who think beyond themselves, and children who thrive and have meaningful relationships, then it’s up to us to model the empathy we hope to see.
If we practice it enough, it will become our natural instinct. We’ll see our social circles expand, our relationships deepen, and our heart for humanity grow as we show compassion to a world that is hungry for people who genuinely choose to care.
Kari Kampakis is a mom of four girls, author, speaker, and blogger from Birmingham, Alabama. Her new book for moms, LOVE HER WELL: 10 WAYS TO FIND JOY AND CONNECTION WITH YOUR TEENAGE DAUGHTER, launches Aug. 18 and can be pre-ordered through online retailers. Kari’s books for teen & tween girls – LIKED and 10 ULTIMATE TRUTHS GIRLS SHOULD KNOW – have been used widely across the country for small group studies. Join Kari on Facebook and Instagram or visit karikampakis.com.