April 16, 2014

And Then I Understood Empathy

Silhouette of a father holding his sons hand while water is reflecting in the sunlight

My stomach has been in knots recently. The western edge of San Francisco – where I call home – has experienced two tragic accidents in the past week. A teenager was swept out to sea by a rip at Ocean Beach and a three year old boy was critically injured after being struck by a truck. The emotions and pain these two youngsters suffered haunts my thoughts each night while the pain and loss their families are enduring breaks my heart.

One of the most common questions people ask of first time parents is how you’ve been changed by the experience. For me the answer comes quick – empathy. As a designer I’ve always prided myself on being particularly empathic, but as a parent I realize I hardly scratched the surface. My understanding of the emotions that can envelop us – from something as tragic as a car accident or as frustrating as navigating a bad website – was, unbeknownst to me, woefully underdeveloped for years.

Each day my son is alive I grown more in love, and more attached to him. Now – a year and a half after his birth – I can’t imagine life without him, and even his trivial moments of pain have an impact on me. So when I learn about the suffering of another living being or a life ended too early it affects me in a deeper, more visceral way than I understood in the years prior to becoming a father. Parenthood is certainly only one road towards empathy, but for me it’s been a super highway.

During these past few days I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of the individuals and their families who’ve suffered in my neighborhood. I realize the gap of understanding is significantly greater than the short journey of compassion I’ve traveled to date but I am no longer capable of ignoring, dismissing or moving on with my day without trying to connect with the anguish afflicting others.


  1. Richard Stanton on

    Insightful and touching – This short piece illustrates how genuine love requires empathy. In this example of parenthood, it speaks of the expansion of empathy which often comes with the revelation of caring for a particular other. And, it reveals that loving someone also makes us more vulnerable. It is finely done.

  2. Susie Morgan Wilburn on

    My husband and I recently lost our youngest son,who was 30, in a kayaking accident in CA in March. I am hoping that when my oldest son has a child that it will help him realize our pain and understand our feelings of his lack of empathy for us. This small article says it all. Thank you so much!

  3. Abraham on

    @Susie, thank you for sharing. I am very sorry to hear about your loss. May you be comforted by the loved ones around you and the many wonderful memories you must have of your son.