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Unlocking the Empathy in Forgiveness

In seeking to understand the people who hurt us, sometimes we might find empathy soothing our own emotional aches and pains.

By Megan Noack

Megan is a journalism student at Brigham Young University. From a young age she wanted to help poor people on street corners. In Africa. Across the globe. She took international development classes in college and eventually discovered social entrepreneurship and Ashoka. Megan was able to combine her passions of writing and bettering society as she worked on the Empathy Initiative team during the summer of 2013.

August 14, 2013

Empathy has a powerful role in many aspects of life—education, helping others, parenting, etc. But when it comes down to it, all of these areas ultimately deal with relationships. When we exercise empathy, we are fostering good relationships because everyone wants to be understood, and everyone wants to feel like someone cares. In ninth grade, I discovered another function of empathy in relationships—forgiveness. It is hard to forgive people when we don't understand their background, when we don't understand why they say or do certain things. We don't always know their intentions, their frustrations, their pains. Often when people offend us in any form, the natural response is to victimize ourselves and blame the offender for our hurt feelings. But when we unlock the power of empathy, the result can be much different. 

I left my afternoon class and shuffled into the gym with my few hundred classmates. We were herded onto the bleachers, crammed just like trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. But that’s class photo day.

After sitting down, I glanced around, making note of where my friends were located, and then my heart skipped a beat when I saw who was right behind my shoulder—the hottest hunk in ninth grade. What a dream! For years to come, all who browsed at that photo would see me right next to him with his impish smile, dark hair and flawless jaw line.

Of course, we had never spoken. And he didn’t know my name. And dozens of girls had their eyes on him.

Finally realizing I was probably staring at him for too many seconds, I turned around and ran my fingers through my hair, ensuring it was ready for my photo shoot. But I also kept an open ear to the conversation between him and his buddies, secretly hoping he would reveal his current crush (or better yet, his ardent adoration for me).

Their conversation went a little something like this (profanity removed):

You know that girl with the face?

Yeah, it so messed up, dude!

I know, right?

Even though every girl has a face, I knew exactly who they were referring to—ME. Yes, I was the girl with the messed up face. Born with a rare birth defect, I had spent the past year undergoing life-threatening surgical operations. The winter before, my left eye had been removed, and a flap of skin from my arm now covered the empty space.

When everyone was finally situated and the camera flashed, I wasn’t smiling.

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I fought through my last class of the day.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

But when I finally walked through my front door a while later, the tears poured. The sobbing started. My shoulders shook up and down.

I didn’t go to school the next day. And when I did return, I glared at "Mr. Hotshot" every time we passed in the hall. I thought of him as a shallow fool for judging me on the premise of appearance.

He didn’t know what I had been through in the hospital. He didn’t know me. I told myself I was better than that, better than him.

What began as sadness flashed into anger and then escalated into pride.

Now who was doing the judging?

It took me months before I tried to understand him, before I tried to be empathetic. Yes, what he said was wrong. But my long-term reaction was also wrong, and it inhibited me from moving on. And that needed to change. I needed the power to forgive him.

When I thought of how Mr. Hotshot judged me without knowing anything about me (including my name), I realized I hardly knew enough about him. But what I did know seemed sufficient: his parents were divorced, he was involved with alcohol (and likely drugs), and he had transferred to our school the year before and was still trying to make friends.

I do not think any of these elements directly impacted why he picked on me, but that didn’t matter because here was the lesson I learned: he had been through a lot recently, and so had I.

So I cut him some slack. I dabbed up the sadness. I let go of my fury and pride. The weight was instantly lifted off my back. 

And it felt a whole lot better.