Humility in Empathy

Emerson Csorba - Thu May 26, 2011

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.”

-Henry Ford

When we talk of great leaders, empathy is a trait that often sticks out. The best leaders are those that listen intently to others, and who attempt to place themselves in others’ shoes. I think that we can agree that this is true. And for student representatives, empathy is especially important. If you are to understand the needs of the people that you represent, then you have to be empathetic – as Ford states, you must “see things from his angle as well as your own.”

Up until last week, I didn’t truly understood the notion of empathy. On May 16 2011, I departed to Poland and Germany along with 60 students across Canada for the “March of Remembrance and Hope.” During this trip, I had the rare opportunity to visit Holocaust concentration camps with two survivors: Pinkash and Faigie. This trip altered my view of empathy. No matter how much I try to understand the experiences of these two Jewish survivors, I will never fully grasp what they went through. In fact, I doubt that I could ever understand – not even for a moment – a sliver of what these two individuals experienced. It’s a humbling thought: no matter how much effort one dedicates to “see[ing] things from his angle,” you will never truly understand his angle. Not even for a second.

As the SU VPA, I represent around 30,000 undergraduate students. This is a daunting task: how can I truly understand the needs of these students? For me the answer is simple: no matter how hard I work, and no matter how many students I talk to, I will never fully understand what they go through. Each student has a different background, a different way of thinking, a different perception of the Students’ Union and a different outlook on life. We may agree on issues relating to tuition, textbook prices and teaching quality, but our personal lives will differ. While I go home to a fraternity house, another student might go home to a family suffering from the loss of a loved one. Another might go home to a husband or a wife. And another might go home to a baby and family to care for, in addition to textbooks to read through and exams to prepare for.

Perhaps stating that I can never truly understand what each student goes through surprises you. After all, isn’t it my job to represent students? Well, it is, and I will do everything that I can over the next year to best represent the students that elected me. If there is one thing that I learned from the survivors and my time at the concentration camps, however, it is the following: I may never be able to put myself in another’s shoes, and feel what he or she feels. But I have to do my absolute best. Sitting on the sideline as a bystander is just not an option.

It is our duty to show empathy, to attempt to put ourselves in others’ shoes, but at the same time, realize that we will never fully understand what others go through. As VPA, this is one thing that will drive me to succeed throughout the year. Whether it is a complex academic policy or collaboration with faculty associations, each issue affects students in unique ways. Part of my job is to listen to the best of my ability, and see the other angle, even if I cannot view it clearly.

  • Emerson