What is empathy? Is it something we innately have or is it something that is learned?
If you answered yes, you are correct. I think empathy is one of those things that lives somewhere inside our souls but often needs to be coaxed out and put in situations that tests it. Empathy is what allows us to understand and have compassion for the “other.”
Eleven years ago, I was given an amazing opportunity—I became an aunt to a little boy. Being the first grandchild in our family, it’s an understatement to say that we doted on our new family member. And as I’ve watched Jacob grow up into an incredible young man, I continue to be impressed with him.
This “all-boy” boy who loves playing sports and playing games and getting dirty like any other kid his age, also has so much empathy. When he was 7 years old he saved his money to purchase $14 ceramic water filters for families in Cambodia. It blew his mind that people didn’t have access to something that basic.
When I began working for Healing Waters, I dreamt of the day that I could bring Jacob on a trip with me. We just spent the last week visiting different Healing Waters project sites in the Dominican Republic! Jacob met the amazing people we get to work with, played with kids his age, and learned about the local culture. Watching Jacob interact with so many people was such an amazing thing to see – this 11 year old who doesn’t speak Spanish engaged so passionately with people and asked tough questions about our work and poverty in general.
One night at dinner we were having a conversation and I asked “Do you understand what empathy is?” Jacob responded with “Yes, it’s when you can walk in someone else’s shoes.” The soon-to-be 6th grader proceeded to talk about how the “water walk” we had done earlier that day had given him empathy for the way the people in that community had lived before they had access to clean water.
He then went on to talk about another complex issue—opportunity. He mentioned how clean water was giving this community opportunity to be healthy, go to school, and to have jobs. All of this from the brain of an 11-year-old. I was blown away. Crafting the right words to talk about our work is my full-time job and here this kid was able to put it in such simple terms. He had empathy for the kids his age that he was meeting and realized that they deserved opportunity.
My hope for Jacob as he returns home to his normal life is that in every opportunity he is given in life, he remembers the opportunity he has—to give to others. My hope for myself and for you is that we can have empathy for others and always look for how we can give others the opportunity every human deserves.