Empathy not Sympathy

This Mandela Day let’s try replacing sympathy with empathy, pity with understanding.

Sympathy is natural, even intuitive. But its power is limited. Sympathy doesn’t break down barriers; it just makes us less guilty existing in our privileged and separate worlds.

But empathy, it’s a kind of emotional glue that can hold our increasingly diverse societies together. Empathy has the power to transform, to disrupt. Because it suggests that difference need not be divisive: that rich and poor, black and white, male and female, North and South share a common humanity that transcends identity politics.

These days empathizing with those Other than us feels like the most radical act of all.

So how about this Mandela Day we enrich that desire to help somebody by getting to know that person better? Not just their needs, but their ambitions and their desires. Who they’re in love with, what they’re afraid of.

To truly celebrate Rolihlahla let’s not just donate things to people we perceive as disadvantaged, let’s sit down to a meal with those people. Have a cup of tea with them. Or at least know their names, look them in the eyes, shake their hands. Recognise — and relate to — the fullness of their humanity.

Troublemaking isn’t just about anger, about outrage.

Sometimes being a Troublemaker means crossing boundaries, unifying, reaching out to the Other.   It takes courage, yes, but unifying was Mandela’s greatest promise. He taught us it was possible; it’s how we celebrate him best.

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