92 Investigating Empathy
Empathy without respect is not empathy, it is pity, and by its very nature places the pitier in a position of superiority to the target of that pity. Inherent in a feeling of superiority is a lack of respect for the other, feeling above the other in some way, usually because the person feeling superior is not struggling with the same challenges at that moment. To provide an illustration, one of my students had been missing classes and failed to turn in an important assignment. I reached out to them and we talked about what was happening in their life. What I learned was that they were going through a difficult time because of something that had occurred in their personal life, a situation with which I could identify, having recently experienced something similar. In that moment, I truly felt empathy and respect for the student because I could imagine what they were feeling and I saw my own humanity and suffering in theirs. Having empathy and respecting another person, I think, lies in the willingness to identify one’s own humanity in the struggle of the other.
Respect can be given without empathy, often in the form of obedience or deference without true regard for the person to whom it is given. Respect without empathy is a barrier that creates distance between the giver and recipient of respect. The term “mutual respect” does no better as it implies a willingness to give each other a wide berth rather than creating a true connection. One can respect another person without ever seeing or acknowledging the struggles or humanity of the other. One can respect another person without ever seeing themselves in the other. To fully respect my students, I must be able to see myself in them; for them to fully respect me, they must be able to see themselves in me.
In sum, I think what I have learned this semester and in reflecting upon the values of empathy and respect, is that to live those values requires that both be present for either to be achieved. I think if these two values were centered by everyone within the PSU community, there would be an opportunity to experience a greater collective sense of health and wellness. If empathy and respect and seeing one’s humanity in another were the basis of all decisions and actions, there would be no need to treat equity and inclusion as separate entities or something to be achieved. Equity and inclusion naturally follow from empathy and respect, and the former cannot be achieved without the latter.