Day 1456 – Day 1461
When something horrible happens to someone we know, the polite response seems to be: “I can not imagine what you must be going through.” It is polite because we don’t diminish the other person’s suffering by offering some platitude as if that will be a salve. The only salve that can be offered in times of loss, grief and pain is empathy.
There are many ways that people use the term empathy. One scholar outlined 8 different ways that the term is used. So, what is empathy? In my life, empathy is providing space for a person to be heard so that their experience can be understood, and felt, from their own perspective and frame of reference. Empathy is to feel another’s pain, just as it is, without trying to change it. Until the pain is acknowledged and felt, it is unlikely that anyone can move beyond it. So, despite our finest intentions, compassionate efforts to problem solve or to alleviate the suffering of others can only stand a chance of being effective once we’ve offered real empathy.
In my life, people have often shared their stories instead of just being present with me when I share mine. I do not want to hear the listener’s own story of pain as a response to mine because it makes me feel unheard and dismissed. Until I feel heard, I do not want any advice. And, even then, I do not want to have someone play the devil’s advocate for the person who hurt me, because it makes me feel unsupported. And I do not want to be told what to think, or what I’ve missed in the subtleties of life because it feels condescending to be treated as stupid, unsavvy, and inept. Even if well intentioned, these ways of relating are off-putting to most people, including me. Imposing one’s own world view on a person who simply wants to be heard is not received as empathy.
When I was younger, I shared with a young man something very private that had caused me a great deal of pain. When he’d heard my story, he said: “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I can not imagine what that must have been like.” Having not felt heard for most of my life, I expected he would treat me in the same way. That he heard me, and didn’t share his own pain story made me feel both seen and heard and I fell in love with him. I didn’t realise until much later that he completely lacked empathy for other people’s experiences.
I confused being heard with being felt. ‘I cannot imagine” is a declarative statement of an inability to equate my experience to yours and it creates the space for my unique experience to be heard. It is polite. But, it does not take the leap to empathy, where my feelings are felt and understood. If we care about someone, our humanity demands that we find a way to imagine what it is that they are feeling.
We can imagine the same experience happening to us and how we would feel in those circumstances. Or, we can remember times when we felt what we imagine we would feel in those circumstances. Since we are only imagining what it would feel like from their perspective – a perspective that by definition we do not inhabit – the final aspect of empathy, as I see it, is not to impose our imaginings on the situation. We simply sit with them in their pain, feeling what we imagine they might be feeling, and accepting and finding a way to feel whatever feelings they bring to the table, whether we imagine we would feel them in the circumstances or not. Together, we bear the pain until it is bearable, alone. That is empathy, to me.
Some people cannot tolerate empathy. They have hardened their suffering into anger and resentment. By refusing to be vulnerable and share their pain instead of their bitterness, they push out love, as well. I know how easy it is to close one’s heart to pain but without the courage to feel and share our pain, we will never be able to feel and share love and joy, either. With people who cannot be vulnerable, we are rebuffed if we attempt to offer empathy. I’ve come to realise that they are stuck in victimhood and what they want is pity, not empathy. I struggle with people in these circumstances, and at present, the best I can do is have empathy for their predicament.
I am grateful to Swami Ramananda of Integral Yoga. I took a class with him in New York many years ago. He was lecturing on forgiveness and although it was not a class on empathy, it turned out that empathy was the key to softening our heart and opening the way to forgiveness. Without both empathy and forgiveness, it is hard to make meaning of the suffering in our lives and that which we witness around us. That said, it is not, of course, empathetic to rush to gloss meaning over another person’s pain. Meaning is made (or not) from our own adversity and only in retrospect, when we have processed our feelings and have enough distance to take a wider perspective on our lives. Meaning-making is the prerogative, in my opinion, of the one whose life it concerns, and nobody else’s.
Empathy is not easy. We can go wrong with it, in so many ways. And, when we get it right, it is painful because we really do feel another person’s pain. But who are we, without empathy? Narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths and other personality disordered individuals lack empathy. I’d rather the bear the pain of another person’s loss to maintain my humanity.
It is empathy that brings us most in touch, I think, with our humanity. It is a selfish byproduct of the capacity to feel another’s pain that we feel, most bittersweetly, the fragility of life and that there but for the Grace of whatever you wish to call it, we might have gone. It is a form of Oneness and although the weakest form of gratitude is to be grateful that we aren’t worse off, real empathy for the suffering of another may well be a pathway to gratitude in our own lives.
This week, two of my dearest friends buried their younger sister. I never met the sister that passed away though I feel that I knew her through them. She was joyful, warm and had a great sense of humour from what I heard of her. She was steadfast and loyal to those she loved, especially her family, and she had a deep inner strength. Mostly, what I know of her is how very deeply she was loved. The three sisters were closer than any set of sisters that I’ve known. Together, they were like a solid, stable, three legged stool. She was, in many ways, the rock that held the family together and she will be sorely missed.
Today she has been laid to rest. The first words that come to mind are that I cannot imagine how it must feel to be in my friends’ shoes.
It is true that none of us who has not lost a cherished sister can imagine what my friends are going through today, and what they will go through in the weeks and months to come. In the order we expect our lives to go, their sister was taken far too soon. It is unfair and life will never be the same for my friends. Since I heard of her passing, I’ve done nothing but imagine how my friends are feeling. They are far away and even if we were closer to one another, there is nothing that I can do to make it better. I wish I could be there, just to sit with them in their grief and to honour their sister, their pain of loss, and the incredibly tight bond the 3 sisters shared. I can’t be there, but from far away, I care, I am moved, and I empathise with their unfathomable loss.
All around me, friends are fighting cancer or losing parents and siblings to illness. Many of them are younger than I am, now. In moments when I focus on how I would feel in their shoes, I take perspective on my life. I am grateful for these friendships and for the opportunity to walk – even at a distance – through life passages together. I am the youngest of my family, and although we have our challenges, I am grateful that both of my sisters and my brother in law are still living, that my father and step mother are alive and well, for their age, that my nieces and nephew are well, and I am grateful, myself, to be alive, to savour another day.
I have tasted the pain of this loss, and though I never met my friends’ sister, I will remember her. As they bury their sister, and move on to processing their grief, and living a life without her, my dear friends are in my thoughts, and in my heart.