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Empathy, Not Sympathy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen

George Floyd was buried this week. It was clear to me when I watched the video that his death was tragic and unfair. It also seems that, to many Americans, his death brought to mind other tragic deaths that have occurred. For those who view Floyd's death as another one of many, it must seem tragically unfair.

The weight of this understanding: heavy and almost unbearable.

After weeks and weeks of complying with stay-at-home orders and pandemic protocol, watching the injustice of Floyd's death on video drove many into the street to protest. Thousands gathered in massive crowds, close together, no longer social distancing. One fear, COVID-19, was given up for another, injustice.

Behind both is the lurking fear of economic instability. Congress has passed, and President Donald Trump has approved, pandemic economic patches, but most people understand that the only way to have a strong economy is to have people working.

Watching the protests turn into riots was scary for me and, I am sure, for others. I was out of town but rushed home to Atlanta a day early. I felt uneasy not being in town, and I wanted to be back to ensure that everyone in my family was home before curfew started.

Protesting injustice is an American right. Destruction of property, whether private or civil, is not protest -- and is unfair. Fortunately, in Atlanta, the protests soon turned peaceful, but not before local businesses had sustained damage from the riots. Unfortunately, many of the business that were hurt or destroyed in downtown Atlanta are minority-owned.

Regardless of who owns the businesses, if the police do not protect the businesses from property destruction, they will not survive -- another injustice that brings with it fear.

This week, Kris Wyrobek, CEO of 7-Sigma, Inc., located in Minneapolis, announced that the manufacturing firm is relocating to a city where police will protect businesses. During the riots in Minneapolis, almost 500 business were damaged, and fires were set in a number of places including the Minneapolis Police Department 3rd Precinct, which had been abandoned. After the riots, the city resembled a war zone.

This was unfair and unjust to the businesses, their customers and the neighborhoods.

We live in an unfair and unjust world. In our individual quests for control, we believe that we can bring justice through our intervention. We are egotistical.

We believe that our perspective is right, is just, is real.

We each believe our own illusions.

Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator and author of "Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It," co-authored by Tahl Raz, wrote, "empathy is 'the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.' ... empathy is paying attention to another human being, asking what they are feeling, and making a commitment to understanding their world."

"Notice I didn't say anything about agreeing with the other person's values and beliefs or giving out hugs," Voss continued. "That's sympathy. What I'm talking about is trying to understand a situation from another person's perspective." It's not agreement that people want; it's understanding and acceptance. It's the human need to be heard and understood.

We all assume that our perspective is right. The reality is that our perspective is our perspective. Even the person next to us will have a slightly different angle from which they see and experience that same event. This will lead to a different understanding. It takes time, effort and intellectual humility to ask another what their perspective is and how it shapes their understanding of what is happening.

It also requires you to be secure in who you are as a person -- to then listen to someone else and really hear what they are saying. Most of us don't listen but instead respond in our own mind to what we hear when others are talking. This internal dialogue keeps us from focusing on the other person and what they are saying; we instead spend our time defending what we already believe to be true.

The underlying fear of economic instability cannot be overcome without listening to one another and working toward peace. Peace produces prosperity, and destructive force results in poverty. We need more than sympathy; we need empathy. This will lead to peace and prosperity.

To find out more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit

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