Wise Words – Longfellow’s Advice On Empathy

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. ”    

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Think of someone in your life whom you dislike.  I’m sure you have your reasons.  Maybe they’ve hurt you or mistreated you.  If I listened to you recount the offensive things they’ve done, I am sure I’d agree.  The problem is, we tend to reduce people to the two dimensions of a cut-out figure, a thin slice of the expansive and complex person that they are. 

Longfellow is inviting us to open our natural capacity for empathy.  If we look past our strong opinions of others, we might recognize something in common about the wounds we carry. 

What does it take to see someone anew?  How can we look for, or care about, the hidden parts within our enemies?  It helps if we can recognize the secret histories in ourselves, the hurts we hold that lay like hidden mines, ready to explode into our own offensive behavior. 

What would we want others to know about our secret histories that would explain our momentary lapses? I hear Longfellow suggesting we might feel a kind of kinship with the people we dislike if we imagined the ways our wounds might be similar. Empathy might disarm all hostility.

Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash

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