Have you listened to Hamilton? If you haven’t you are sorely missing out. Aside from being just a great show anyway, the cast recording is the best I’ve ever heard because it was cut as a professional album. It’s one of those situations wherein if you’ve listened to it once, you’ve listened to it five times and have no intention of turning it off anytime soon. Now, if you have, you know that the above line is from Wait for It.
I am the one thing in life I can control. I am inimitable, I am an original. I’m not falling behind or running late. I’m not standing still; I am lying in wait.
Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb. He has something to prove, he has nothing to lose. Hamilton’s pace is relentless, he wastes no time. What is it like in his shoes?
We are very strange creatures, humans. We like to pretend, and often long to be something, someone, or somewhere else. I’m a singer/actor just like lots of my friends, and just like lots of my friends, when I’m singing along to a cast recording in the car, I am willing myself into that reality. We want to be the one up on that stage singing that song. Sometimes, we even want to be the person in the song (you tell me you wouldn’t love to actually be on a magic carpet singing A Whole New World). When we’re on stage, we’re convincing ourselves that we are living an entirely different life, and when we attend plays as audience members, we’re escaping into that reality that someone else has lovingly created for us. We watch television and movies, we read, we see competitions and become invested in winners, and we see beauty in a painting and want to escape into it. We try so hardsometimes to willingly jump into someone else’s existence.
If we want it, that is.
Because the inverse of that is the tendency to judge, to distance, to discriminate, to exclude. Now, that’s something that we don’t necessarily like to admit, but we do it. Innately, and from an early age. In fact, we have to be taught not to do it, right? We have to be taught that different isn’t always bad, and that our perspectives are not the same as others’. They tell us to “imagine walking a mile in their shoes”.
We are not good at this. We are not good at picturing “what it’s like” for them, because the way we compare things for ourselves is always based on things we’ve experienced before; things are always “like that time that…” or “better than” or “worse than” or “different from” or any kind of relation to something that has happened in our past, from comparing bug bites to our paydays to our personal relationships. So, we tell ourselves, that’s not fair to expect me to know what it’s like to be an orphan. And that’s where sympathy comes from. “You poor thing.” Maybe you drop off a casserole you threw together, maybe with a card, and you’ve earned your good citizenship award! Good job!
Here’s the problem; sympathy is condescending. It is inherently only an acknowledgement that someone is experiencing something bad. The other hallmark of sympathy is that internal voice going, “At least that’s not me”. At least that’s not me. Another way you could say that is “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as it could be because it happened to someone else and not me”. See? That’s pretty selfish. That’s sympathy.
Now, empathy, on the other hand. That’s where the humanity is. No, you haven’t experienced every tragedy that someone else has, and it’s really not fair to expect yourself to be able to compare your experiences at face value. But, let’s just say that you’re talking to someone who has had their house broken into, and you’ve never gone through that. What do you think that person is feeling? Let’s throw out a few: anger; sadness; fear; despair; and probably a health dose of violated. You are a person, are you not? So you have felt these things before, maybe even all at the same time. Maybe you’re not feeling those things right now, but you know what they are. And that’s what you have in common with this person, right there. They’re sad and violated? How about that time Chad stole your show-and-tell harmonica? Or when Susan called you a loser in middle school? And if you can access those feelings, even temporarily, then you can relate to this person with the break-in, and it’s genuine. It means something, because you’re coming from a place of actual understanding.
That’s the key, I think. It’s not about being just like someone, or having been through the same thing; it’s about drawing from your own human experience and recognizing that it’s universal. Empathy is understanding that life happens and that we’re all in it together. Sympathy is pity; empathy is connection. And it’s interesting to me that we are supposedly living in the most inter-connected world in history and we’re as far apart as ever. Some blame this on how busy we are, and others blame it on how allegedly selfish we are. My personal take is that social media allows us to constantly be bombarded with perfect pictures, great accomplishments, and AMAZING EVENTS. In fact, that’s all we ever see from other people. Know what we don’t see? Their failures, or their low points, or their mundanities. In contrast, that’s all we see of ourselves. We are constantly comparing our bloopers to their highlight reels, and so we feel the need to reciprocate and put our best, shiniest selves out there for others to approve of.
In doing this, we not only hide our humanity, but we also keep ourselves from really connecting to others. Right? “Their life is great. I bet they’ve never gone through something like this.” “Oh no, how awful for them. But they’re probably doing just fine. After all, they always seem so put-together and happy!” Empathy is connecting, and we’re not doing much connecting, anymore. So I challenge you to stop every now and then ask just ask yourself:
“What is it like in his shoes?”