Performing Radical Acts of Empathy in 2018

Becoming an ally to others

By Angela Noel

January 4, 2018

In 2018 I want to perform radical acts of empathy.

I first heard the phrase, “reading is a radical act of empathy” at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis during an open house for writers.  Months later I heard author Kelly Barnhill, winner of 2017 Newberry Medal for her book The Girl Who Drank the Moon say the same thing on a children’s podcast, Brain’s On. “Reading is an act of radical empathy” she said, ” . . . It’s a reminder that my own point of view is not the only one . . . We have to be able to be another person . . . so we can stop being such selfish jerks.”

Author Sunil Yapa, interviewed in January 2016 by Lit Hub about his debut novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, may be responsible for this idea. He says:

We live in a world in which our lives are linked with people thousands of miles away. Each person has a real life. Empathy is a radical act, particularly when you use it to connect with people who are very different from you  . . . In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences. Of course, another word for that is “reading.”

Stand with others
Standing with and for others is a radical act of empathy. Photo by Trina Christian on Unsplash

But whoever said it first, or said it best, the impact on me remains the same: I have work to do.

A few months ago I listened to a podcast produced by National Public Radio called Code Switch. The roundtable of participants discussed what it meant to truly be an ally to people of color, or the LGBTQ community, or to any non-dominant group. Again and again the theme emerged: An ally doesn’t name him or herself an ally and call it good. An ally is an actor, one who shows up not just in word, but in deed.

I was reminded of this idea yet again when I read a post from Your Fat Friend on Medium entitled, A letter from the fat person on your flight. The author concludes her piece with this:

You don’t have to make a scene. You just have to show up.

Show fat people — like me — that I’m not alone. Show me that you noticed. Show me that you know the size of my body isn’t carte blanche for casual cruelty. Show me the deep decency and goodheartedness that warm your beautiful face. Realize their promise in your actions.


In 2018 I want to practice what it means to be an ally, to show up for others and to practice radical acts of empathy.

Despite not knowing what this means yet, how I’ll show up, or exactly what I’ll do, I believe I can start by challenging myself to read more broadly. For example, I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi in 2017 for both my in real life book club and for Just Another Book Club’s November selection. To say I found it extraordinary does not adequately express how I felt about the writing, story, characters, and author’s  commitment to the journey of storytelling from the heart.

Clearly, I can do more than that. I know I can. Maybe I’ll be the sympathetic passenger Your Fat Friend hopes for. I’m not sure what situations I’ll find myself in. But I’m determined to find the courage within myself to stand up when called. I’m a little afraid and have much to learn. I must, however, be purposeful and committed if I’m to become more than a selfish jerk.

After all, empathy is a radical ACT. And I’m ready.

Your turn: Will you help me? What do you think are actions of empathy for others? 

Featured photo credit: Jeff Sheldon from Unsplash


Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

47 thoughts on “Performing Radical Acts of Empathy in 2018”

  1. I like this idea and have been thinking the same. Books are powerful because they allow you to see things from another’s viewpoint and we empathize and feel for the person, but I want to do more to support others in the real world too. I have been thinking that I want to be there for people who are vulnerable to attack – people who may be refugees, homeless, disabled, elderly, female – the list is long! One of the things I want to do is to actively engage with people whenever I meet them in the street, or shopping, or on public transport. A smile, a hello or a chat will show I’m an ally and that they have someone who cares and sees the person beyond the label. I think that will be a start.

    1. I’m so glad you’re thinking of these things too. Being there for people who are vulnerable to attack in real ways can be a challenge, but is a powerful goal.
      I think you’re right, it can be as simple as a smile and a hello. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. It means a lot to me.

  2. I have often wanted to put myself in another’s shoes in order to understand where that someone is coming from. I suppose that would be “radical” empathy. It’s so easy to judge, or form cognitive biases, towards those who are different than I am; not to condemn, but just forming an opinion (be it positive or negative). The book by Ron Hall, Denver Moore, and Lynn Vincent “Same Kind of Different As Me” is a true story that shows what being an “ally” looks like. Being an ally without patronizing is a fine line, but it can be done when we acknowledge that humanity, the best and the worst of it, is just that: we are all unique humans, every one. An act of kindness, a readiness to engage comes when we can say, “Same kind of different as me.”

    1. I love that, “same kind of different as me.” That’s a great way to put it. The challenge to be an ally–standing WITH not always FOR is one of the things the Code Switch podcast talks about. There is a power relationship there that needs to be considered. You bring up an excellent point.

  3. I just refused to switch seats on a flight because I would have had to sit next to an obese man. On the return flight, a heavy man boarded at the last moment and his seat was next to mine. He asked me to move over to the window, leaving him the comfort of the aisle seat. I declined. I book far in advance so I can have the aisle seat. I’ve had long flights seated next to an obese passenger and if I’m uncomfortable they must be miserable. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t belittle them. People who fly already know seats are narrower than they used to be, and because if that I don’t fly very often.

    1. Hi Pamela. You’re speaking to the heart of why I wrote this post. Standing up with others is a complex thing. As you say, realizing your own discomfort and thinking then how hard it must be for someone else is empathy.
      When I had a little baby and he cried during the flight, I wonder if people wished they could move away from me? I already felt bad, would I have felt worse? Or if I’d asked, if they’d have traded seats?
      Or if a very tall person sat next to me and needed more of the leg room what would I do?
      Practicing radical acts of empathy does mean, for me, choosing discomfort over comfort. But, the complexities of when, what, and how exactly to do that make a “one right answer” impossible. Thank you for sharing your thought.

  4. Love this post Angela. Funnily enough as I started to read it, I immediately thought of Homegoing, so it was a delight to see are we are literally reading from the same page. This post perfectly supports my point of view, which is that reading is SO important. Yes, it pleasurable, calming, great escapism and good for one’s vocabulary, but it does help people empathise so much. It’s a creative way to let people see a different point of view and a way to let a voice be heard. Thanks also for the shout out at the end of your post. It’s always appreciated xxx

    1. It’s awesome that we are on the same “page.” (Book humor) The best part to me is that good ideas catch fire as quickly as bad ones. If more people seek inspiration and insight from diverse sources and encourage others to do the same simply by doing it out in the open and not being afraid to talk about the choices we’re making and the struggles we have, change happens. I once heard someone say my job as a parent isn’t to know the answers but to show my children how to learn through experiences. I love that idea. Whether as parents, friends, or even strangers crossing paths on the random journey of life, our job isn’t to be perfect in every moment, but to show our capacity to embrace the journey. A year ago, I would have been so afraid to post this idea–afraid of what I might expose myself to. Today, the fear is still there, will someone be offended? Am I totally wrong? etc. But, I’m less afraid of stepping forward because I’m less afraid of being wrong. If I am, I’ll own it. Particularly if, in being wrong, I learn how to be a little better next time. Thank you for reading– this post and in general. It really makes a difference.

      1. Thanks Angela. I absolutely agree with everything you say. Especially regarding our role as parents. It’s not to know, it’s to show and I do try my best in this respect. And yes the ripple effect of good ideas and good deeds is not to be underestimated x

  5. As a counselor, I know that children who can put themselves into the lives of another, either through a book or a movie, (by crying or laughing along with the character) have a well-developed sense of empathy. Although there is a wide range of empathic responses along a continuum, most humans have this capacity. In fact, since we are Love at our very core, we all do. Sadly, those who have suffered child abuse or other early trauma may have had this capacity extinguished. But I digress….you are right…we can all work to draw upon this response more frequently. And, as an aside, you are probably at the bottom of my list of people most likely to be called a selfish jerk!

    1. I’m glad I don’t seem jerk-y to you. 🙂 But I think I can do better.

      I love your point on developing empathy. On the one hand, I believe it is innate and yet we seem to lose it along the way or forget how to flex that particular muscle in a hustle-bustle world. But, like anything, when practiced we can improve. I hate to think anyone has had this capacity extinguished. I think empathy can sometimes be confused with being a doormat or weakness. Being empathetic requires strength and courage and a willingness not to shrink away at the first challenge to our comfort. At least, that’s how I see it today. As I learn and grow my understanding may evolve.
      I remain so grateful to have you and your thoughts to inspire me.

  6. Angela, this totally made me think of the twist on the golden rule: treat others as they would like to be treated. Not how you would like to be treated in their situation, but understanding and respecting that they may think, feel and act differently from you. That your preferences aren’t their preferences. I don’t have an answer on how to do this, but I believe that in doing this brings empathy.
    I kind of like this post:

    1. Hi, Sarah! I think you’re wise to bring up the “extra” golden rule. I once had a wise person tell me something that has stuck with me through the years. She said to try and stay in my own shoes, but to ask others about how they’re feeling or what they’re experiences are. It was a way to keep from making assumptions. But, I think the article you shared does a good job to saying it’s not so much about just projecting and assuming, but about starting with good intent, having self-awareness and just being willing to try. Thank you so much for sharing your thought and that article–I think it’s a great addition to the conversion.

  7. I’m in. How can I help? I too write a blog and am connecting with people across the globe who are rising above challenges, and in the process they support others, making our world a bit smaller and more compassionate. I will stand with you in this practice of radical empathy. Our world can use a bit more of this. Thanks for sharing, and nice to meet you.

    1. Hi Heidi! Nice to meet you, too. I’m a new follower of your blog and really enjoyed today’s post from Winnie. I do think our world needs more of this–compassion and progress towards a smaller world with greater, stronger connections to what knits us together rather than tears us apart. I’m not sure exactly how this effort will manifest over the year. But, your supporting others through your blog or in real life is something I ‘d love to learn more about. I’m looking forward to reading more from you this year. Thank you!

  8. I really like this idea – did you see what Sarah Silverman did on Twitter for a guy who randomly was rude to her? I’m taking a huge lesson from her, and your post was perfect timing!

    1. Hi! Yes, Hayley posted it yesterday and I thought-wow, now that’s exactly what a radical act of empathy looks like. I might even do a follow up post on it, it was truly a perfect example. Thanks for reading and seeing the connection between Sarah’s awesome and radical act and what 2018 can be for all of us.

  9. I love this idea! What a great goal for 2018. Empathy is in short supply these days, I’m going to also try to be more empathetic this year. Maybe we can get a movement going!

    1. Yes! I think the best thing we can do is keep talking about it. Allison made a great point, why is it that it’s so radical to be empathetic? I think the opportunity to spend the energy to understand and do something in support of others is before me every day. The slight change I need to make is choosing to act. Let’s keep talking about it and see what happens!

  10. This is such a good post.

    I’ve been thinking about this more and trying to be an intersectional ally too. I’m not sure what I can do, but I plan to try my best to do radical acts of empathy along with you.

    1. “Intersectional ally” is a great term. I haven’t heard it before, but I like it. I am delighted to have you as a partner in this. I’m not sure how it will all manifest, but having friends along for the ride means a lot to me!

      1. Oooh I just took it from feminism. Intersectional feminism is basically fighting for equal rights for everyone (not just wealthy white women)

  11. Excellent post, Angela. Again, it’s one that if people read and act upon it, you are helping to make the world a better place. I find this common-place among your posts. This post also reminded me of one of your older posts about taking the time to smile at people and how that can change someone’s day. What a simple yet powerful action. For me, I would love to make a point of going out of my way in order to be more empathetic. For instance, purposely making the time to help someone out in a store (even if they’re not directly in front of me, or send a friendly “hello” to someone who has no inclination to look up as I walk by. Beautiful post, and thanks for making the world a better place. 🙂

    1. I think you’re exactly right, Erin, a simple “hello” really can change the world. I feel like these little things help to call forth our humanity in different ways. Like standing in line at an amusement park sometimes I look at the people in front of me as obstacles–like the sooner they move through the line the faster I get to the ride. But, when I take the time to exchange a word or a smile, suddenly we’re in this thing together. It’s transformative. I have no doubt you’ll make an impact!
      Thank you so much for the best compliment I could ask for. If I do nothing else in this life, offering a positive message with the chance that someone may hear will be enough.

  12. Love this! I try to follow the rule of ‘be the change you want to see’ and I hope this comes across in my day to day actions as well as my writing work. Can I just add that ‘you’ and ‘jerk’ should never appear in the same sentence 😉 If we keep smiling and sharing the love eventually we’ll see the differences.

    1. Thanks, Shelley!
      I think the rule to be the change is such a good notion. I am sure that everyone sees your good intentions through your actions and your writing is a great example of how you give back from your own experiences to help others.

    1. Thanks, Debbie! I’m already feeling the effects of just keeping my mind more open to what will cultivate acts of empathy. I’m glad you’re on board, too. The more we can do together, the better we’ll all be!

  13. My pastor talked about this last year and it has been my motto ever since in many situations. Even when I disagree, I am tired, I am fed up, at my wits end, I choose to show up. Be open to listening and understanding. It’s been hard to do in some cases but not only does it help me it shows the other person I care and acknowledges they are just as human as I am. I can’t wait to hear about how this goes for you!

    1. That’s excellent. I had no idea this phrase was in common use, but I’m so glad you adopted it as a motto and are already acting on it. I’m looking forward to the year ahead for sure (even if I’m a little unsure how it’ll all work out).

  14. I like the idea of “You don’t have to make a scene, you just have to show up”. Too often, I feel that the only way I can make a difference is by doing something ‘big’, when subtle acts can be just as powerful. I also feel that radical empathy can be something as ‘simple’ as listening to someone and making them FEEL heard. You would think that listening to others is easy, but far too often I have conversations with people where I don’t feel heard at all, which leaves me frustrated. Taking the time for another person and showing them that they’re important enough to be truly heard can be powerful from their perspective.

    Good luck in your quest for radical empathy!

    1. Thank you for the good wishes! You articulated the challenge beautifully, and I know you’re not alone. Just because we can’t do it all doesn’t mean we can’t start with something, but that’s hard to do. And I think you make a great point about feeling heard. I think I sometimes make the mistake of thinking that to feel “heard” I need the other person to agree with me. But that’s not it. Feeling heard and demonstrating hearing is about respect, not agreement. Thank you for your insight!

  15. First, I want to commend you on opening yourself up to what could be a life-changing endeavor. Second, I want to share my thoughts with you. I think that to begin this challenge you will have to first create a habit of putting other people before yourself. You can’t “see” from someone else’s perspective until you first “see” that person. It’s like being at a check-out line, you can’t really empathize with the person ahead of you or behind you when you’re focused on your own issues, time, and frustrations. In other words, you will need to develop an extreme level of selflessness in order to perform “radical acts of empathy”. But, I encourage you to do it. It IS better to give than to receive after all. I wish you well on this endeavor and I hope you write about it as you take it one day at a time.

    1. You make a great point. It takes effort to really get beyond my own bubble. And I think it takes something like constant vigilance to be mindful that my first reaction may not be the right reaction. Thank you for adding your thoughts! I will share what I learn as I do just as you say–take it one day at a time.

  16. I love this concept. Little acts of kindness (and little acts of cruelty or passivity) can make such a difference. I’m going to join you on this experiment, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    1. I’m so glad, Ali! I’d love to know how it goes for you. So far, I have attended a diversity book club meeting and learned a lot about a book called, “The Color of Law.” A great discussion.

  17. The thing about Radical Empathy is that it (mostly) can’t be contrived. Situations like these require reflexive action. How will I show up? Hopefully, I’ll be happy with my response. In my workplace right after the Sandy Hook shooting, The management team was debating how to recognize the shooting. It was agreed that we’d put up a bulletin board with an angel cut-out for everyone who was killed. My radical empathy? I suggested we put one up for the shooter as well. While he committed the horrific act, it’s not up to us to judge what caused him to take those actions. Oooh, the glares! Empathy, I guess, needs to be tempered to the situation.

    1. This is DEFINITELY a radical act of empathy. But I agree, that could be very tough to take. Martin Luther King Jr said, “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. . . . The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. . . . and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.” In that same sermon he goes on to say that loving those that wrong us is so very very hard. But, that’s exactly why we should do it. Because it proves the strength of love over hate. Those who hate have not the strength to love. But those who love will find the strength to spread it. I love what you did. Even if I abhor the act of that man. Or the Las Vegas shooter–or any of the other ones. Their acts are terrible, they should be punished for them. But that’s not the same as recognizing the humanity of another. We don’t recognize him (or her) for his (or her) sake–we do it for our own.
      Though I do understand your co-workers reaction and can’t promise I wouldn’t have felt the same. I’m so glad you did what you did. You did the hard thing. That’s radical empathy at its finest in my book.

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