Empathy — seeing oneself in those in need
“I can see my grandfather’s house in yours. It brings back memories. I can see him in it, and I can see me in it.”
The woman said this as she stopped by to look at the progress of our project house, Rose Haven, the reintegration home for female veterans. The house is slowly making its way out of the shadows of its own history. We are not erasing the significance of the people who lived there before, reflected in the house’s “bones.” But as we rehabilitate the skeleton, put on new skin, like a roof, or replace rotted wood with “good” old wood from other houses, we create opportunities to rediscover ourselves in its history.
Old houses resonate in many of us because we remember growing up in them — how the walls and floors, the closets and fireplaces, the kitchen linoleum and creaky stairs became indelibly associated with stages of our lives. We identify with more than the house itself; the experiences of those who built and lived in the house touch a familiar spot within us.
This affinity with old houses offers a keen insight into the importance of seeing ourselves in others. Strong communities that are tightly knit and supportive include folks who are different from one another in a variety of ways, yet those members can still see themselves in others. Perhaps just as important, members of strong communities consciously allow their vision to see themselves in others.
The woman who made the comment about the house explained that one day, as she passed by Rose Haven, something clicked in her memory and the house became more real. She didn’t know what triggered it — perhaps the way the sunlight bounced off the new roof, something she was thinking about at the time, or a recent conversation with a family member. The experience didn’t have to be spiritual in nature, although it could be. But that click in the woman’s memory allowed the house to become a means to reconnect with something important to her. She associated herself with that house.
Her experience is meaningful to her, holding a message of familiarity of experience and of connection.
This story illustrates empathy, a critical element in building and sustaining community. Each of us sees the world through a lens created by our own unique history. As a community, we are not just individuals moving through life with just one view. At the same time, our lens has the capability to incorporate others’ experiences into our optics. Without empathy, we couldn’t see beyond the bones of a crumbing old house; in our vision, it would remain just a failing structure. The woman didn’t have to live in Rose Haven to appreciate what it meant to her.
I didn’t serve in the military and experience the horror of combat or sexual assault by others I served with. But if I want to be part of the solution to help address the effects of those experiences in vets and encourage healing, I must open up my lens to understand how these wounds can dramatically affect lives. Our lens isn’t built to do this on its own; we must turn that capacity on to be open to what it reveals about others. Empathy means I don’t have to “feel” pain to comprehend its reality. Empathy works when I allow myself to see me in those in need.
Robert Greene Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the non-profit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.