Help Me Understand

By Abak Hussain

Is empathy an inherent quality, or can it be learned?

“You just don’t understand!” 

And so, with that damning sentence – paraphrase and translate, please, according to the person’s choice of vocabulary and diction – so many relationships roll downhill, or meet their sticky end. Bring it up in front of a psychologist, and that word “empathy” keeps appearing. That we need to learn empathy, that we need to increase our empathy. That we need to stop judging people from our high horses and try, really try, to understand others from their own perspectives. In other words, don’t act like you understand someone’s journey until you have walked a mile in their shoes.  

I am by no means an expert on the subject (I did take “Intro to Psychology” back in my undergrad days … but that’s about it), nor am I what you might call a natural born “empath.” This is a topic I have grappled with and tried to make sense of, and the journey has been frightening, enlightening, and hopefully transformative. 

For those of us built a certain way, and those possibly a tad neurodivergent (diagnosed or undiagnosed) some lessons can be daunting, like the middle-aged brain trying to learn a new language. In fact, there is plenty of debate about this, and the question is worth asking: Can empathy even be learnt at all? Is it one of those attributes that one simply has or does not have? Picture this: You see someone being bullied, cornered, harassed – maybe it leaves you cold and you think “not my problem,” OR maybe you feel the victim’s pain and can’t help but speak up on their behalf. If your instinctive response is the former, is it possible to learn enough empathy to move towards the latter? And would you want to?

For me, there have been intense sessions with multiple therapists, a lot of reading, a lot of difficult conversations, and a lot of deep dive meditations into what it all boils down to, and no, I do not have answers, and I cannot claim to have walked out into the light full of love and forgiveness for all. Some self-reflection spawns even more questions: When do you cut out a toxic relative? If a person does something truly unforgivable, do they even deserve to be understood? Does a greater sense of empathy weaken me?

Photo: Josh Calabrese

On the road without a roadmap

Certitude can be the death of growth, and so it is probably not a bad thing to keep asking these questions. On a personal level, each of us has to navigate the waters of our experience and that of those around us. It can be frightening to be on this road without a roadmap – for example, if you are close to a person on the autism spectrum, or are raising a neurodivergent child, the circumstances of your life may force you to become more empathetic than you ever thought you would have to be. 

It is one thing to say, in theory, that empathy is good, but it is quite another to feel that all the juice has been drained from you trying to care for someone who seems incapable of reciprocating. It may feel as though your cup is constantly being emptied and never being filled back. This could, in turn, lead to resentment, a sense of betrayal towards life and society, and emotional burnout. 

Empathy, then, cannot be a one-way street, because that’s a formula for hollowing yourself out. We must also learn to communicate our situation to others, as best and as clearly as we can. If someone is piling weights on top of our shoulders, blissfully oblivious to the fact that we are already nearing breaking point, it is up to us to say: Enough. Easier said than done, of course – we may sometimes not even have the energy to complain, or feel that the person in question, be it a spouse, a parent, or a sibling, does not even have the capacity for the empathy you are asking of them. 

Empathy is, at the end of the day, a type of intelligence, and it is something that needs to be built gradually. It is useful to think of it almost as a level of education or skill: If someone can barely pass a high school math test, you cannot realistically expect them to be able to write a graduate level conference paper on advanced topology. The habits of mind must be built up, bit by bit. There may be resistance at first, because some of us find it all too comfortable to shut ourselves to the problems of others and disappear within ourselves, but they say growth happens and the edge of our comfort zone, and this is as true of emotional intelligence as it is for book-learning and skills of other sorts. 

Our schooling system, Bangladesh’s that is, has failed egregiously to foster a sense of empathy in students. At worst, students learn absolutely nothing and find themselves unprepared for the emotional challenges of the real world, or for navigating relationships whether in the workplace or at home. At best, they develop uber-competitive personalities bent on getting their straight-A so they can rub it in the face of their peers/competitors. 

But life is so much more than a battle for supremacy, or a desire to be the best. Our children need to learn to deal with failure and disappointment. They need to learn that just because you beat someone else at this or that, you are not better than them. Anyone can have a bad day at the exam hall … or job interview, or while preparing college applications. Maybe you get into Harvard, your friend fails to get into any institution worth a damn. Maybe it’s the other way around. Either way – no need to gloat, no need to beat yourself up. 

“You just don’t understand!” they may complain at our continued cluelessness. Here, I will at least try, with no guarantees of success, but with all the empathy I can muster, to comprehend their point of view just a little bit better. I’m listening, I will say: Help me understand.

Abak Hussain is a journalist, and Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh. 

Photo: Vinicius Amano

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