Ten Thousand Days

A Way to Empathy

August 17, 2018

Photo: Umit Bulut

Day 1462

I had breakfast last week with a man I’ve gotten to know over the last 2 years.  He’s been a good friend to me and I always come away from our meetings with something to ponder.  As, I think, does he.  We have a kind of spiritual friendship and this has filled a gap in my life.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about forgiveness.  In order to forgive, we must first find our way to the Oneness of empathy.

I’m a pretty forgiving person, but awhile ago, I said to my friend, CMF, that I didn’t think I would ever be able to forgive a particular person for the wrong they had done to me.  I just couldn’t see how I would ever forgive.  I could not envision myself ever doing the same wrong to another person as was done to me, and since forgiveness, to me, requires empathy, I could not put myself into their shoes.   If I had behaved badly, or even if my actions were misinterpreted, my empathy for how I must have hurt someone would cause me to apologize as soon as it was clear that I had caused them hurt.  In this case, I have apologized for my own wrongdoings, but I’ve not received an apology, in return, for a major betrayal.   And, hardest to bear, it was precisely my ability to feel empathy for them, during the time we engaged with one another,  that was exploited by the person I struggle to forgive.

I think anyone would understand my difficulty.  But, the simple truth I’ve come to realise is that until I can forgive, I will be the unwitting carrier of the resentment that keeps my heart defended and closed.  It will be the thief of joy. And, I will energetically carry a tie to that person.  As a service to us both, I must learn to forgive the seemingly unforgivable.

I came away from breakfast grateful for three insights:

Empathy does not require me to reconcile with the one who wronged me, or to excuse or even to be able to relate to the choices and ACTIONS of the other person.  I only need to be able to imagine what lead to the MOTIVATION for that action.  While I will never know the developmental process that created the person who hurt me, it is possible for me to imagine a young child who has been wounded by parents or teachers and who adapted behaviours to that situation, in order to survive.  I don’t have to relate to the behaviours, but I can related to being wounded and I can imagine the fear and helplessness that caused a young child to fight for survival.  When I feel how that child might have felt, I have compassion for the person who wronged me.

Secondly, my friend was adamant that where we cannot forgive someone, we must examine ourselves to see if we are unable to forgive ourselves.  Often, we cannot forgive in ourselves the very qualities we despise in the one we feel has wronged us.  This is called projection.  We sometimes project our shadow side onto someone when they do something that irritates or offends us beyond the magnitude of the action.  We say they are horrible people, because we don’t accept that we share that quality.  I’ve considered this, but after soul searching, I don’t believe that I projected my character flaws onto the person who harmed me.  What I did do, however, was to see only the good in them, even when there was evidence that I was overestimating them.  It is important not to victim blame, but I do have to accept that I was slow to admit that I was mistaken.  I’ve done some thinking about why I was so slow.  There were some good reasons.  And, there was also the reason that I simply didn’t want to believe the truth.  For the latter, I have forgiven myself.

The third insight that I’ve come away with is that it is not necessary to receive an apology, in order to forgive.  Yes,  it is harder to forgive someone who is not sorry for their wrongdoing, but it is not impossible.  This is where it is helpful to imagine ourselves in the others shoes.  I’ve imagined many ways in which a childhood trauma could explain their actions as an adult.  But I keep coming up against one thing that doesn’t fit my experience of adults I’ve known, and that is what appears to be a complete lack of awareness or regard for the feelings or needs of others.  And, while harmful behaviour warrants an apology, the simple fact is that if someone lacks empathy, it is beyond them to comprehend why their behaviour is harmful or even that they have wronged another.

Sometimes apologies come much later, and sometimes long after we have forgiven the one who harmed us. For many who lack empathy, this quality can be learned, and is often learned when one takes the steps to heal one’s childhood wounds.  But, there are some people who will never be able to acquire empathy.  When one encounters someone who lacks and will never have the capacity to develop empathy, we may decide to keep a safe distance from them.  As hard as it is to swallow, we have to accept that they cannot help or change their behaviour and they will never care about what they do to others.  As strange as it sounds, it feels easier, for me, to forgive a psychopath (and keep as clear of them as possible) than it is to forgive a fully grown adult who has more resources than 99.9% of the world to put towards healing their childhood wounds, but has chosen not to do so.

As I reflect on this and try to make meaning out of my reluctance to forgive, I realise that the kind of wounding that results in a lack of empathy, in an adult, is incredibly tragic.  Just as I have compassion for the wounded child, I realise that healing those wounds takes a great deal of courage.  I am a courageous person and I have overcome a great deal in my life, and so I have a blindspot for those who lack courage.

This is where I need to soften my heart.

Not everyone has that courage or has the support structures in place to dare to open Pandora’s box.  And as much as it does not excuse anything that was done to me, I can see that my blindspot to those who are fearful gets in the way of my empathy for them.

I know how it feels to be frightened and lacking support. I know how it feels to be governed by my fear. I know what it is to keep secrets on myself and stuff them down inside,  because I was not ready to face them. I know what they are going through. I was once there; I remember how it felt.  I can empathize with anyone in that situation, even one who has wronged me.

My empathy, with some effort, now extends both to the child in distress, and to the adult who cannot bear to revisit and heal the wounds of their childhood.

Having found a way to empathy, I have found the doorway to forgiveness.

Forgiveness may not happen all at once, but it begins with a decision and a willingness to forgive.  Understanding that their own wounding led to my wounding, and that their fear prevents them from healing and developing empathy, I see that they currently have no ability to understand their wrongdoing or feel remorse.  I hope that they will find a way to heal. And, I choose to forgive.


Photo: Serrah Galos


For what are you most grateful, today?



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