Radical Empathy, Defined


The term “Radical Empathy” occurred to me way back in 2010, when I was supervising a large department of the Library. We were in the middle of a major remodel, and I’d just had a baby. We were also in the middle of the recession, dealing with staff layoffs, and our patrons were faring even worse.

My staff was stressed, our patrons were stressed, and I was stressed.

It became my mission to reduce everyone’s stress, including my own. Let’s not be so black and white on everything, I told my staff. Let’s help each person as an individual. Let’s have radical empathy for what they are dealing with, and do the right thing for them if we can.

In the library, it often involved bending rules and making judgment calls. But, staff were uncomfortable with this, even with my full permission and confidence. They like consistency. What is the point of having rules if we don’t enforce them? They don’t like the gray zone.

For me, though, the gray zone became my sanctuary – it’s the sweet spot where I found the joy in serving people.  This didn’t mean randomly bestowing special privileges on a certain few. It just means that if someone presents themselves to me in a state of stress, I will do whatever I can do to help that person.

To me, it’s a matter of personal integrity. My interests are in serving humanity first. Not the rule book.

In 2012, Cheryl Strayed published a book called Wild. I eyeballed it, a little jealous, and thought – meh, so what. She wrote a book about an epic adventure.  That book sat on one of our best-seller displays winking at me for two years before I finally broke down and read it, and when it did, it cracked me wide open in ways I hadn’t expected. I sought out her other writings. She does an advice column and a radio show as Dear Sugar, and the writing there was like nothing I’d ever encountered. It staggered me with the truth, with her humanity. The term she was using?

Radical Empathy.

I don’t know who thought of it first, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of those concepts that seems born in multiple places at the right time, out of thin air.

I Googled around looking for a definition of Radical Empathy and there were a lot of results with people using empathy exercises in large groups to bring about world peace. That’s great and all, no doubt. Maybe it means different things to different people.

But in my definition, it starts with the individual. It starts with individual action. Feelings + Action = Radical Empathy.

It starts with your humanity caring about the fate of another struggling human and acting upon it honorably.

Practicing radical empathy requires a certain generosity of spirit and a willingness to do whatever it takes in a given situation to help someone. It requires brutal honesty, kindness, and patience.

It absolutely requires an open heart and an open mind. There are mysteries at work here, even a little magic. The struggling people I help everyday often have profound lessons for me. Truly, I am the one receiving the greater gift. This isn’t my motivation, though. It’s a side benefit.

Radical empathy. It’s hard to define because it is not a concrete thing. You only recognize it by feeling it. You only feel it, by doing it.