“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?
I 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.”
This 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.
So 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.
True 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.
Yesterday 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.
Are 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.
- Why Study Empathy? (nicholegrimshaw.wordpress.com)
- Revenge and Empathy (jenniferlesher.wordpress.com)
- empathy used to abuse others and empathy used to help others (metafilter.com)