Empathy is life’s last lesson

When was the last time you learned something or heard something that made you second guess your view of the world and your place in it? Something that really made the foundation of your certitude shake beneath you?

For me, I’m not sure what the answer is. I went to college for 14 years and in many ways, I’m still there, working in a university setting. Yet, I cannot for the life of me remember the last time my world view was altered or my beliefs challenged in a way that they were no longer my beliefs. And that’s quite shocking considering that’s what college is supposed to be all about.

That’s not to say this didn’t happen during this time. It’s just been a long enough time that I can’t really remember. At some point our views become cemented and we stop questioning this, but this wasn’t always the case.

Early on in life we know nothing and look to others for guidance and understanding about everything. At this stage, our world view may be altered once a week or even once a day. Our thoughts oscillating back and forth, new ideas spewing forth at incredible rates, each more unique than the previous…unique at least to us in our own minds. But at some point though, change reaches an asymptote, coming ever so slowly, moving at a glacial pace. But it does reach us. It’s just that the challenge now is taking the time to understand and see it as it reshapes us.

So I’ve spent some time thinking about this the last few days and what I’ve realized is somehow this glacier has retreated back up the mountainside without me even noticing. I am different. I do know that. I think about the world and my place in it differently than I did 15, 10, or even 5 years ago. But how exactly? That’s where I was initially unsure.

I thought about whether I actually continue to pursue change in myself and I do. I continue to read and read broadly. My formal education has continued as I’ve decided to audit classes at the university. And most importantly, I try to meet new people of all walks and share in the human experience with them as often as possible. I like sharing my own experiences and how they have shaped me, but even more so, I love to listen to other’s experiences and genuinely try to understand and feel what they have been through and what has shaped them.

And then it hit me. I think once all the dust has settled and our world views have more or less been cemented in our minds, our last and maybe greatest lesson is that of empathy. Empathy is the final lens that brings into focus how we perceive our place in the world and it’s a lesson that forces you to place others before yourself.

But we don’t typically place others before us early on in life. When we first begin to learn to lay the real foundation of our minds and become so satisfied with ourselves for discovering this new identity, most of us love to shout it to the world and proclaim it as truth, never thinking for a moment that our truth may not be someone else’s truth. We never think that by being so bold in our proclamations and assertions that we may be offending, hurting, or losing people that are close to us. After all, we’ve just discovered the truth and it’s our duty to inform the world. When in fact, our own truths may actually be closing us off to an even greater and more important truth.

The way I see it, the truth as learned through empathy only comes when two conditions are met. First, you have to have enough life experience to put into perspective the perspective of others. Second, you can only be truly empathetic when you place others before yourself. I’ve had plenty of life experience to be capable of empathy, at least in certain instances, but only in the last few years have I been bold enough to set myself aside to make enough room for others.

And that’s been the greatest lesson of my life and one that continues to shape how I view the world. It’s such a huge realization, but somehow it retreated up the mountain without me even noticing.

By allowing myself to fully and truly empathize, I’ve gained the clearest view yet of the world and my place in it. I’ve allowed myself to see the similarities between all of us, despite the overwhelming differences between all of us. No longer are my own views the most important thing in the world. What’s most important are those I share with the people around me, because it’s these commonalities that bring us together when when we need it most. And as I continue to gain new life experiences, my ability to empathize will only continue to grow, providing me with a life filled with a continuous stream of meaningful lessons and experiences.

One thought on “Empathy is life’s last lesson

  1. Embarrassed to say that sometimes it comes many, many years later. Why didn’t I see it earlier? When it does become clear it really didn’t seem that complicated. That’s the unclear part.


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