Susan Sarandon once said, “When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” When I was young, I was not exposed to a variety of people and beliefs outside of my family and religion. Without knowledge of others, I encountered the problem of not being able to perceive other people’s mindset. Not being able to empathize with others would cause big problems for me as I grew up and met different people. Luckily, traveling to different places around the world and nation has allowed me to understand and empathize with different perspectives. The place that most affected me is Africa, where I saw the extreme extent of poverty and realized how hard life was for some people. Empathy is a key lesson that I learned, that has changed my self-image and identity, and that I apply in my life to this day.
I have learned the most about empathy while visiting Africa to visit family and as a vacation. I saw the hardships that Africans faced and the jobs Africans had to have to survive. Hardships that I saw included people not having sufficient clothing, and sometimes, not having any clothes on at all. Clothing is essential in Africa to protect the body, especially the skin from the scorching sun. When I was outside, you could feel the sweltering heat from the blazing sun sear your skin. Many Africans didn’t have fans or air conditioning either, which I depended on immensely to remain chilled and refreshed. While traveling on the roads, we saw many small houses similar to huts that made me ponder how big families fit comfortably. I felt the misery of the Africans who had to live in these poor living conditions.
Some occupations I observed were shop owners in markets, street vendors based on tourism, maids, and miners. I stayed at my grandpa’s huge house and started to feel bad for the maids that worked there when I witnessed how hard and long they had to work in order to complete the laundry and clean the house everyday. This was one of my first times noticing the struggle that others went through on a regular base, and I felt the hardship they were going through. I could feel their pain as if I was the one working and I was overwhelmed with a sorry feeling for them. I tried to help the maids in whatever way I could, so they could go back to their families as fast as possible.
I would always ask my mom and my grandma, “Is there anything I can clean or help with?”
Sometimes they would give me small tasks and say, “Sure, can you go wash the dishes or broom the floor.” I liked assisting the maids even if it was indirectly because it made me feel like I was doing my part to help minimize the suffering and struggle they would face.
As our journey in Africa continued to different places; I kept feeling empathy toward the different people we encountered. We met a lot of street vendors and shop owners, and some of them didn’t even have customers due to the competition from the other stores.
I felt the pain of not having customers and making money, I always asked my parents, “Can we buy something from that store?”
My parents would say, “Sure, go ahead and buy something small.”
There were a lot of instances where this scenario occurred, and after a while they started to change their responses. They said, “You can’t keep buying things and using money just because you feel sorry for people.” I tried to persuade them by informing them on how I felt about other’s predicaments, but they were firm in saying that they wanted me to be empathetic toward people without spending too much money. It was clear that this new personality trait would affect the rest of my life.
My identity was changed immensely through the experience of learning to feel empathy. My outlook on people and my actions changed to a more open and broader view. With a different attitude, I was able to communicate and interpret different people and a diverse population. Empathy has helped me understand the news and benefitted me when collaborating with other people for projects and discussions both in school and out of school. A variety of disparate events appear on the news, and each reporter puts a distinctive twist on their story. To truly interpret an event, you must comprehend the people involved, such as refugees, protesters, victims, and even criminals.
I have argued countless times exchanging harsh and mean words to people who I believed were stubborn as a mule. I later understood these people who I had to work with after stepping into their shoes and perceiving their viewpoint.
After my experience in Africa, I felt empathetic towards many who I crossed paths with. Through my life I have learned that empathizing with others helps avoid more misunderstandings between people than being stubborn and only having one view.