by June Jeong, opinions editor

When a classmate blurts out socially awkward, strange comments in the middle of my class, I start laughing. And I’m not the only one; this particular student is the constant subject of the entire class’s light-hearted ridicule and good-natured mockery. And I didn’t find the jokes inherently harmful for the longest time because I never targeted him or made comments to his face, instead taking to immature giggling and smirking with the rest of the class when he spoke.

Only after I heard about his truly distressing past and difficult familial situation did I suddenly recognize the potentially hurtful nature of my biting sarcastic and mean reactions. A wave of guilt and regret washed over me for all the times I tried to be funny at the expense of another person’s feelings. But in that moment, I came to a realization about my pattern of behavior: I discovered that I often only empathize with people, or empathize with them tremendously more, if I find out about a life-alteringly tragic event that happened in their life. I think to myself, “Wow, this person has gone through so much and this merits my understanding and compassion.” But this line of thinking, I’m beginning to grasp, is in its own way, incredibly selfish and demonstrates my ‘selective’ empathy. It meant that I was only willing to show true kindness to people that I don’t know well if I know what they’ve been through, as if this ‘deems them worthy’ of my acceptance and humanity.

There’s no way of knowing the most difficult or personal parts of everyone’s lives, because we all usually carry that information quietly, and alone. So many of us aren’t, or weren’t, doing ‘okay,’ and maybe that’s okay; maybe we should embrace that we all carry ‘baggage’ and this isn’t something to be ashamed of. After all, it’s universal. Everyone I meet is fighting a battle that I’ll never begin to know or understand, and that’s why we should always be kind. But even if this weren’t the case, even if people haven’t or aren’t going through a painful experience, shouldn’t we be more empathetic and compassionate with other nevertheless?

Judgment inundates high school, and I think the root of such hypercritical attitudes towards others is that people forget or grow numb to the fact that others are just as human as they are, capable of experiencing pain. A few years ago, I was deeply judgmental and condemnatory of those around me, assuming aspects of other people that I could never possibly know, then shaping my behavior around those shallow, preconceived notions. This judgmental point of view arose from my own deeply rooted personal insecurities, leading me to make negative comments about those around us to mask my own vulnerability. Judgment tends to be toxic in nature, causing people to lose the ability to understand, and share another person’s feelings. Highly judgmental people are incapable of seeing through another’s perspective and thus they discredit and shun those opinion’s, beliefs, choices, appearances that differ substantially from their own.

Too often, judgment impairs our ability to empathize. We underestimate how much influence we have over other people and the impact a harsh or kind remark can have over someone’s self-perception or life. This extends to, and perhaps stems from, the general coldness and self-centered mentality that pervades society. The political realm in America illustrates this precisely, in which the discourse is predominantly cantankerous both online and on the debate stage. Rarely do people address the heart of issues directly while recognizing that others’ opinions are valid and felt due to understandable reasons. Instead, political debate today thrives and revolves around personal attacks, outrage and condescension. In that sense, President Trump’s appeal as a demagogue is reasonable: Trump feeds into the frustration of a hard-working, disenfranchised class of people. Quick to label non-supporters and rivals as weak and pathetic, Trump seems to encourage the sense of spite and tension between himself and opponents. His popular Mexican wall proposal and recent executive orders illustrate America’s conscious detachment from the rest of humanity. Politics is clearly a critical aspect of human society, and the political dynamics––policy proposals, the political leaders’ and candidates’ communication and cooperation, participation by citizens––increasingly point towards a lack of empathy. It reflects a perspective towards those who don’t maintain the same ideology that is callous and blatantly irreverent.

Growth in society can only happen through conversation, and meaningful dialogue can only occur with empathy. And this dialogue is significant because divergent approaches are necessary to solve complicated problems. It is important for us to develop empathy in our personal and professional lives, extending our acceptance and comprehension of why people do what they do, think what they think, are who they are. In this way, empathy is immensely powerful in its ability to resolve conflict. It may very well be the most valuable resource for, and characteristic of our humanity. It heightens awareness of our similarities and connection with fellow humans––others suffer in life the same way we do. It overcomes the self-serving, instinctual reactions we have to our differences in ideology or appearance, instead challenging us to come up with solutions or a consensus for the benefit of all.

Personally, I believe that the recognition of my flaws and genuine willingness to better myself as a person is the first step to self-improvement. I am far from perfect, but I truly want to be a non-judgmental, compassionate person, so I work every day to close the gap between who I am and who I’d like to be. Every time I find myself retreating back to a hurtful or hypercritical line of thinking, I catch myself. As Morrissey said, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind.”