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Michael Abrahams | Needed: more empathy

Published:Sunday | June 18, 2017 | 12:00 AMMichael Abrahams

A female friend of mine used to tell me, many years ago, that "people do the best they know how". She would often say this during discussions about people who exhibited offensive or antisocial behaviour, and I would challenge her by saying that, in many cases, people do know better, but are just disgusting.

Then, several years later, an older, wiser man expanded the statement, saying that "people do the best they know how, in the situations that they are in, with the resources that they are given." This was a eureka moment for me, and it all made sense.

Some people find themselves in circumstances that they are not equipped to deal with, because of their limited resources. That simple comment changed the way I looked at people and their flaws, and sent me on a continuing path to try to understand my fellow human beings as best as I could and appreciate the value of empathy.

It is easy to judge others, especially when they say or do things that violate our own morals and ethics. But there are always reasons for our behaviour and our reactions under certain circumstances. Empathy is essential if we truly wish to understand our fellow human beings, and by understanding them, we will become more tolerant, and our tolerance will facilitate justice and peace. Without empathy, there is little hope for harmony.

We tell our children to be respectful and obedient, but the word ‘empathy’ is not used nearly as much as it ought to be with them. If we genuinely wish to decrease the unacceptably high level of aggression in our society, we must embrace empathy.

But what is empathy? Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It makes us less judgemental. One of the best ways to learn empathy is to be a good listener. I have often heard the comment that there is a good reason why we have two ears and one mouth, and it is because we should listen more than we speak. When some of us are engaged in conversation, instead of listening to the other party, or parties, we just wait for an opportunity to make our next point. But if we would only listen, and process what we hear, we may start to see our brothers and sisters differently.

There is a woman I used to hear about who had a reputation for having sex with a lot of men. Other women would speak about her with scorn and disdain, and refer to her as a “mattress”. In our patriarchal culture, men who do this are tolerated, or even praised. Women, on the other hand, are vilified.

I eventually met the woman and we became friends. During the course of our friendship, I learned that her childhood was very traumatic and that she was repeatedly sexually abused. Understanding her history put her actions into context, and I understood what may have influenced her lifestyle. Such dysfunctional childhood set up survivors for that type of behaviour, and instead of looking down on her, I empathised with and began to feel protective of her. 

At any rate, who consenting adults choose to have sex with is their business, but learning her story made me see how people are quick to label others without stopping to think what they may have been going through.

Another group of people who tend to be judged harshly, and would benefit from empathy, are women who have had abortions. Many of us are unkind to them, referring them as murderers, or as one female friend of mine calls them, “walking cemeteries”. The thought of terminating a pregnancy is a revolting one for many, and it is understandable. But many of us have never been in a situation where such a decision would be contemplated, and some of us, namely men, never will.

I have met countless women who made that painful decision, but had previously sworn that they could never do such a thing. But physical, mental or social factors at the time may have been such that carrying a pregnancy would have overburdened them. The truth is, because we are not in their skin, we will never know where their head space was at the time.

Members of the LGBT community could use a lot more empathy as well. Those of us who scorn and deride them should take a little time to imagine what it must be like to grow up in a society that rejects homosexuality, for example, and then come to the realisation that you are strongly attracted to persons of the same gender as yourself. Gay people, for the most part, do not choose who they are attracted to, and to face that reality can be overwhelming.

If gays deny their feelings and get with someone of the opposite sex, they will be living a lie and it will only be a matter of time before the truth surfaces and feelings get hurt. If they get with someone of the same sex, they risk being ostracised. And if they keep to themselves, they may end up living a life of loneliness. As humans, we are wired for bonding and intimacy, and to deny oneself of that can lead to depression, bitterness and misery.

Some of us are naturally empathetic. Some of us are not. Fortunately, empathy is something that can be learnt. If we honestly desire a more functional society, a good place to start is to learn to empathise with others, and to teach our children to do the same. It can be done.

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams