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By Wei Kai Lin June 6, 2019

Where Empathy Begins

Illustrated by Logan Voutsinas

“Empathy begins with understanding life from another person's perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It's all through our own individual prisms.”

This quote from American actor Sterling K. Brown tells us that there is something inevitably incomplete about our own individual perspective, and that if we at least try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we might be able to learn from other people’s experiences, from their insights and their mistakes, and transfer that learning to our own understanding of ourselves and the world.

From a very young age, we begin to develop our ideas, opinions and perspectives of reality, at first through some mix of our inherited disposition and the perspectives of our parents and our close friends, teachers and media sources (e.g. books, movies). We begin innocent, young, unexperienced and gullible, so of course, we at least partly mimic and follow the mentality of our immediate circle without thinking too much, even though many of the perspectives nearest to us may turn out to be biased and one-sided. But as we grow older, we start to see things not only from our own perspective and that of this tight circle but from the perspectives of others outside that circle as well.

For example, even if we are not ourselves Jewish, through education, we may learn about the suffering of the Jewish people in concentration camps during the Holocaust; we attempt, however imperfectly, to see through the eyes of those Jewish people. In the process, we also learn how some perspectives, such as those that were held by the Nazis, can be horrifically dangerous, leading a nation to scapegoat a vulnerable ethnic group. Our understanding of these perspectives can also help us to identify where and when they persist in our world today.

To offer a less extreme example, here in Montreal, when you walk down St-Catherine street and you see a man who appears homeless lying against a wall, a cup placed in front of him on the sidewalk for loose change, what is your perspective of him? Do you see someone who is simply lazy? Someone who would likely use the money for drugs or alcohol? That’s how some folks see homeless people: as lazy and wasteful. Maybe such judgmental people have never been homeless, or struggled with mental illness, as many homeless people do. But if we try to imagine a homeless person’s perspective, we might see that they are simply hungry and just want a small cup of coffee to keep warm through the cold winter night, or we might see that their kids are hungry, but they have no money, so that are asking for change in order to feed their family. And sometimes a little role reversal can change many things: the way we talk, the way we act and the way we think. Even if the only change is that we begin to offer a friendly smile to anyone asking for money on the street, or, to take the earlier example, if we begin vote, or even get more politically engaged as a first step in combating prejudice and hate, these small changes can add up across the actions of many people to make a significant difference.

We are often so consumed with our own point of view that we lose our curiosity and our compassion towards others. It is important to stay true to ourselves, but we also must try to walk in other people’s shoes, both to enlarge our own perspectives and to become a better version of ourselves.


Quote source: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/sterling_k_brown_775174?src=t_perspective

About the author

Wei Kai Lin is a 2nd year student in Cinema Communications.

About the illustrator

Logan Voutsinas is a first year Illustration student.


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    January 27, 2020

    I truly believe that empathy is one of most of the beautiful parts of being human because it’s raw emotion. All of us experience it at least once in our life time that we can remember by. This piece of writing is well written due to the fact that as a human we can all understand the emotions of empathy and we can relate to many things all together. Just yesterday, a famous basketball player and his daughter, and other people involved of a tragic accident passed away. Although these people are not a part of my life the tragedy you feel for them and the heartache you feel for the families as well is just a significant impact in your life. With that being said, we as humans then all come together and mourn the loss of these individuals due to empathy and wish peace for their families & friends.

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    January 27, 2020

    Empathy is an increasingly important human trait that seems to be harder for people to wrap their heads around each day. With different parts of our world burning away, being suffocated by toxic chemicals, or being torn apart by bullets, compassion and the drive to help is invaluable. You talk about “imagining” a homeless person’s perspective and how seeing things through their view would expand our own, therefore making us better, more understanding, and more likely to lend a hand. I couldn’t agree more with the idea that this type of thought could change many lives for the better, but I fear that the majority of people lack the imagination to place themselves too far outside of their own worlds which creates sharp borders between different religions, classes, and races. The world could certainly benefit from some more of the imagination that you detail here.

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    Justin H

    January 27, 2020

    Empathy is such a powerful emotion because we can all relate to it at some point in our life. This writing describes perfectly how empathy works and gives an example that I can totally relate to. I would see many homeless people around St-Catherine street and always wondered what is their point of view. Begging for money that could possibly go to their kids, or maybe just trying to buy a bit of food to survive another cold night on the streets. Being opened to other perspective can really make you more empathetic for one and another and it can bring two completely different people together.

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