Empathy

My “40 days for Lent” haven’t gone as I had thought. I thought I would be able to post every day but that hasn’t happened. The last two months have been very busy for me – I’ve had my regular part-time job, contract work putting me up to full-time hours, spent a lot of time researching and submitting a proposal for a large contract (which I didn’t get), plus I’ve been on the planning committee for a major fundraising event (the event happened this past Thursday and was a great success). In the midst of all this was the 11th anniversary of my first husband’s death.

I’ve been “emotionally compromised”.

But I’ve continued to think about my theme for this time, “our common humanity”. I’ve been thinking a lot about “empathy” (the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another).

We all need to experience empathy. It’s how we gain connection with one another. It’s how we build friendships and relationships. When we meet someone for the first time, what do we do? Try to find things we have in common. Why? Because then we have a place to empathize, a way to start building a connection. I think at a certain level we all want to know how we are the same because then we know we are not alone.

And being alone is not a pleasant place to be. When I was married the first time my greatest fear was that my husband would die (i.e., that I would be alone). And then the thing I most feared…happened. I underwent a lot of growth as a result of that experience and learned a lot about myself (I’ll save that for another blog post). But my point is that we all have a deep need for connection with each other. We may seek it out in different ways but we all need it.

Empathy is a path to that connection. Over the past few weeks I have experienced empathy from others and also a lack of it. I’ve thought about how I’ve felt in those situations and come to realize more and more the importance of empathy.

My husband is great for showing empathy (and in response to that, compassion). In very real ways he acknowledges the stress I’m going through and communicates he cares about how I feel. He has helped me learn to be compassionate toward myself.

But there are many people who lack in the departments of empathy and compassion. I don’t think most of these people were born that way. Maybe they weren’t shown examples of empathy when they were children. Maybe empathy was perceived as weakness. Maybe they were abused and learned that the world was a dangerous place, that self-protection and striking first were the ways to survive, and that there was no place for empathy is their worldview.

I experienced the results of this empathy deficit twice in the past week. I was sharing with someone (whom I’d like to have a connection) that I had not gotten the contract I had bid on and that I was feeling really disappointed. This person didn’t even acknowledge what I was feeling and moved on to the next topic. In another instance I was sharing with a friend about how difficult it’s been for me the last couple of weeks with work and the fundraiser and Mike’s death. Again, this person did not acknowledge my difficulties, but rather moved onto their own needs.

I came away from those encounters feeling crappy, feeling like I don’t really matter to these people. How can we have personal relationships with each other when empathy is one-sided or completely lacking? Could they even be called ‘relationships’?

And it makes me feel sad. The empathy deficits these people have hinder them from experiencing meaningful relationships and through those relationships to learn empathy and the ability to extend it to others.

I have not been a “poster-child” for empathy. I did not learn empathy from my upbringing. Empathy would involve vulnerability and vulnerability was considered weakness. I was determined not to show weakness and I was insecure. I never learned to truly look beyond myself and “see” others. When my current husband and I were dating there were a couple of months where one thing after another was falling apart for him. He was really stressed but all I could think about was how he wasn’t spending as much time with me. I’m embarrassed to admit this. Looking back on the situation it seems utterly ridiculous that I would be so self-centered.

I’ve come a long way since that time. It’s comforting to know there is hope. I’ve gained more empathy and I wonder how I’ve learned that. There are many factors at play and I’m not even sure of the causes and effects. I know gaining an understanding of grace helped me to have compassion towards myself. I became more secure and accepting of myself. And more accepting of others. Learning to see the beauty in all people has helped a lot in the empathy department. I see myself ‘with’ others rather than ‘separate’ from others.

In many ways we are all the same. When we can see each other from this perspective, empathy can grow. And we all need empathy.

3 Responses

  1. Tamara Wanner

    I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since Mike moved from the temporal to the eternal. I’m so glad I was a part of your journey with Mike and Leighton. You are special to me and I know we’ve been out of touch for a while, just wondering if I can come hang out for the night on April 11 and 12. I’ve got a conference on Stuck Kids that I’m looking forward to attending and if I work it right, the Christian writer’s workshop on Fri and Sat. Sounds like life has been crazy busy for you. Take care. Tamara

    March 9, 2013 at 8:15 pm

  2. Rain

    What a thoughtful post. I am sorry to hear about you not getting the contract, especially after all the hard work. And may God continue to comfort you as you mark the death of your first husband. May you experience peace.

    You are so right. Empathy is key in building deeper relationships. There is something about being understood by other others and to have your pain acknowledged. I too much learn to reciprocate empathy towards others.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm

  3. Lila

    Sometimes we’re attracted by the other side of empathy. Sometimes the very differences, the very “otherness” of another person can attract us. The Good Samaritan was drawn to the injured Jew, but why? Jordan Peterson speaks about the avoidance/curiosity push/pull that we feel in the face of the Other.

    March 16, 2013 at 3:22 pm