Pain Divided – On Empathy


empathy (Photo credit: glsims99)


“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Walt Whitman from The Song of Myself 

“I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.” Mahatma Gandhi

Ah, empathy. Some say it is one of the distinguishing qualities of humankind. I might argue that dolphins have demonstrated it and all the dogs I have ever loved have had it. But certainly the lack of it in humans is equated with mental illness, with socio-pathology.  So it is odd, isn’t it, that empathy itself is so misunderstood?

faces copyI find that to some empathy is seen as a weakness. The ability to “understand others’ feelings,” the dictionary definition is equated with taking on those feelings, being subjected to experiencing the pain of others to the degree that you suffer the same pain, or as Whitman would have it, you “become the wounded person.”

Pain copyThis is seen in fictional characters, like Counselor Deanna Troi in Star Trek, who can go to the extreme of taking on so much of someone else’s pain that they are injured by it.  This may be empathy squared perhaps, but in real life it is likely to be pain multiplied.

When this happens caregivers or counselors, friends or family, burn out or suffer from what is sometimes called compassion fatigue.

So is that the price one has to pay? Does empathy require gut retching, debilitating absorption of other’s pain? A kind of psychic mind-meld? As someone who has been a therapist, I don’t believe so.  I think it is a fear by many, however.  I think one of the reasons we sometimes avoid the grieving or feel uncomfortable talking about loss or divorce or life disappointments is because we think that experiencing the pain felt is an expectation, or that it will be the result.

friends copySo then what is empathy?  I think of it as beginning with a spiritual resonance.

Guitars are tuned by adjusting the strings so that the vibrations become attuned to the desired pitch. When tuned the vibrations of one string are sympathetically picked up by another which then resonate with the sound.  Empathy, fine tuned, creates a connection between people and then using that connection conveys understanding and support, a shared humanity whose larger message is that the pain will recede and be overcome. It requires that pain be understood but not absorbed. It focuses on helping the hurting person, not the helper.  It is pain divided by the support provided to the one bearing it.

recycle ATTEND copyTrue empathy needs not wound the healer. It does not necessitate sitting down and howling with pain yourself, but listening to and believing in the one suffering.

Of course that means you must have triumphed over pain, yourself, and know that it is possible.  Empathy is a survivor’s skill. And spiritual health is a necessity to effective help. For me, empathy is a spiritual exercise of faith in something bigger than us; for me it is belief in a God who will share the pain we feel and provide the resources we need.


accepting hands copyYesterday my husband and I presented a workshop on Domestic Violence. Doug made a plea to the audience, which was composed of pastors, to find ways to support the abusers while still holding them responsible for their acts.  Both elements are necessary if anything or anyone is going to change.

friends carry copyAre there sociopaths in the world? Certainly. But many of the wounds in our society are inflicted by people who are themselves in pain. Do we let them off of the consequence of their actions….No.  But should we examine our world to see where we as people, as a society, create wounds that lead to wrongs, crimes, evil…I say a resounding yes.

We can compound pain by anger and outrage, or we can try to heal it by empathy and understanding. I believe anger fuels anger. It becomes a pain multiplied. I urge you to empathy and a pain divided. Our world is desperately in need of change.  And it starts with us “being the change we wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi taught.

Ah, empathy.

About joanneeddy

Writer living in North Carolina. Originally from upstate New York. I love my family, my community, and my friends, and embrace 'living deliberately' in the world, trying to make a difference. I have written an as yet unpublished book, The Call, an epic fantasy with historical fiction and folklore elements. My blog is for other writers, for those who love a good read, and for all who, like me, are looking to find and live their call.
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6 Responses to Pain Divided – On Empathy

  1. Hi Joan, thank you for the link to my blog post on revenge and empathy. I enjoyed your post as well. I think the more we can understand and embrace empathy, even in the face of wrongdoing, the more civilized we can become.


  2. joanneeddy says:

    I agree, Jennifer. Sometimes it feels to me like we have forgotten how to be civil with one another and revel in anger and outrage. Empathy is an antidote to that, as well as a sense of our shared humanity. Thanks for checking out my blog…Jo


  3. Lisa Orchard says:

    Love this post, Joan! Society is in short supply of empathy, that’s for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bernadette says:

    It is very hard for me to have empathy for abusers but I am sure that for many of them being helped by someone who takes the time to understand their pain is a first step in starting a new way of handling problems. Thanks for sharing at the Senior Salon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • joanneeddy says:

      I certainly didn’t start with empathy toward abusers. Far from it. My original feelings were more about what I thought of as justice….that what they did should be inflicted on them. It took a long time to see that is actually what abusers are doing…they were repeating what had been done to them. For years, I said I would only work with victims of abuse and then slowly saw they were often victims, too and needed mercy and grace not justice if the pattern of abuse was going to be stopped rather than passed on. I cannot always stay there in my mind, and not every abuser changed. For me it’s sort of the Golden Rule expanded and I hope God will grant me grace and mercy as well, instead of only justice. I do believe justice is important as well as accountability for abusers, but the best of justice also includes the opportunity for redemption. That struggle for me, for justice tempered is a long one in my faith. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts, Bernadette. I love being part of the Salon. Thank you for creating it and giving me the chance! Jo


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