In a time where our stories can differ immensely, I would like to propose that the key to connecting with one another on an individual level, understanding communities around us and enhancing our international perspectives as global citizens is empathy – the practice of expressing emotions to draw similarities for connection. It is the ability to respond, especially in times of uncomfortable emotions, with the two most powerful words, me too. In this respect, the diversity of selves is an asset.
What we fail to realise is that each one of our stories is a book filled with not only facts and experiences, but emotions associated with them. Every book, then, comes with a deposit to our emotional banks that we turn to to practice empathy. The thing about empathy is this, it thrives on finding similarities. We must be able to listen to another person’s story, identify the emotions being experienced and immerse in it. What we have to remember is that we will rarely, if ever, have the exact same experiences or the same stories (as our minds have their way of drawing on our past to contextualize current circumstances); but we can experience similar emotions. Emotions is the language that surpass rifts of generations and barriers of cultures.
There are two dangerous practices in our culture, though, that are preventing us from embracing the diversity of selves and cultivating empathy.
First, we are quick in defining people with a single story. Growing up, I have most often been referred to by people who know little about me as “the Raffles one”. “You’re from Raffles what, this should be easy”, “She’s Raffles one mah, that’s why so zai” or the worst, “Raffles one, don’t study also can get ‘A’”. The last most frustrating because most of the afternoons that I remember as a student in Junior College were spent consulting teachers, doing and redoing my tutorials. What I have learned is that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. As a student, I struggled with competing expectations of effortless perfection. I was more often told what I should be like in conversations with people who were supposedly trying to get to know me better. “Wow, that sounds like a lot of commitments. But you’re Raffles one, so it should be easy for you right.” Each time we settle for ‘incomplete’, we compromise the diversity of selves and the countless stories every individual can tell about their being.
Second, we are obsessed with harmony. The opposite of harmony is the state of conflict. We are conflict averse to the point where we avoid any potential for conflict – run away from instability, shun uncertainty and settle down fast. The challenge is that empathy is built on emotional connection and emotions are one of the most unstable, uncertain elements of being human that we can never run away from. Conversations about intense emotions make us uncomfortable as it accentuates the deficit in our emotional word bank. We know happy, sad, angry, tired. Each of these emotions, though, are but a single point in an entire spectrum. The most incredible part of our beings is the capacity to experience the spectrum at its entirety – we can do ‘sad’ as in, slightly disappointed all the way to deep melancholy; or ‘happiness’ as in, tickled just a bit all the way to sustained joy that fills you with faith and hope. Yet, our only response to how are you, is fine.
Highly active in the youth volunteerism scene, youth workers often ask me, do you think youths today are empathetic? To me, every human being (youth or not) has the capacity to empathise. The diversity of selves enables us: it provides the repertoire of emotions and experiences upon which we can cultivate empathy as a practice. What differs from one individual to another, though, is our tendency to choose empathy. Every conversation that relates emotions presents to the listener this choice. The tendency to choose empathy, then, works like an imaginary jar. The contents of the jar, the common aggregate of an individual’s encounter with others – with every ‘how are you feeling’ and ‘what did you do today we’ add marbles into the jar. Conversely, with every ‘stop crying and be a man or get a grip, you’ll grow up and realise this doesn’t matter’, we empty the same jar.