How Empathy Can Resolve Guilt
Most of us have a secret activist buried inside us. We wish we could do something about the news stories we read—about refugees, children who are abused, people who are persecuted because of their race or religion, etc.
Once we’re finished catching up on the news, we may feel a twinge of guilt returning to our own privileged lives. Shopping for an expensive handbag, planning a sumptuous dinner, or considering your next vacation destination, can make you wonder, “Is this really what I’m thinking about, when people across the world are barely scraping by?”
This is a natural reaction. How do you not feel guilty taking pleasure in a good life when the lives of so many others are filled with suffering?
But think about guilt for a moment. Does your guilt help those people in peril? If anything, we tend to avoid situations that trigger a lot of guilt. Which means you might find yourself wanting to avoid reading about—much less doing something about—the suffering that surrounds you. It’s easier not to think about it.
I’d like to suggest a more productive approach. It evokes a force that’s different from guilt. It’s not based on what’s right or wrong—and it doesn’t require you to deprive yourself in order to help someone else. It’s a way of giving to others while you also give to yourself. While guilt tends to contract your life, this is a force that expands your life.
The force I’m talking about is compassion.
It’s the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and empathize with what they’re feeling in a given situation. It might sound strange, but most people tend to avoid feeling empathy. The reason is simple: It hurts. When you empathize with someone—whether it’s someone close to you or someone halfway around the world—you’re going to feel their pain inside you. Most of us would rather hold other people’s suffering at arms-length.
But empathy has a distinct advantage over guilt: it motivates you to help others and simultaneously increases your ability to enjoy your own life.
How can you put this into practice?