“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
― Henry David Thoreau
I used to watch a show called Charmed about three sisters who were witches with different powers. Alyssa Milano’s character “Phoebe” becomes an empath, meaning she could feel other people’s feelings. Being empathetic is not just a magical power. It’s something most humans are capable of. Well, perhaps sociopaths are incapable of being empathetic. Alcoholics and addicts can have a difficult time feeling empathy. We are generally self-centered during the time when this deadly disease is consuming our lives. A theory I’ve been looking at is that perhaps alcoholics and addicts are highly empathetic. We’re certainly a sensitive lot! I wonder if experiencing other’s feelings is too much for us. Just like pain and joy can be difficult to feel, we medicate all of the feelings, including empathy. In my quest to be more empathetic, I’ve begun a research project to better understand how empathy works. I imagine it could take years, perhaps decades, to complete this work but for now it’s a beginning.
ˈempəTHē/ noun: empathy
1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
The difference between sympathy and empathy can be confusing. I think of it like this: sympathy is feeling with and empathy is feeling into. Some explanations are that you feel empathy when you’ve experienced what another has and sympathy when you have not. I’m learning that you can be empathetic and feel someone else’s feelings whether you’ve shared their experience or not.
Lately I have been paying close attention to all of my feelings and reactions to situations. I’ll give you an example. Last weekend after returning from 1500 miles on the road to take 4 different kids to different camps in two different states, I got a call that my oldest daughter had broken her foot. Thankfully it wasn’t serious but I needed to drive back to Georgia to take her for a cast. I spent a few days driving back and forth between where the camp is located to my parents house, about 30 miles away. It’s a stretch of road that runs through several small towns.
I live in a decent sized city now with many open-minded people, but I grew up around those small, southern towns and witnessed hate, closed-mindedness, and ignorance. The drive reminded me of those experiences when I was younger. I saw many symbols of hate in those 30 minutes and I got angry. The judgments filled my head and I wanted to react. Then I stopped the needless chatter. I thought quietly “Would you listen to yourself? You’re having a hateful reaction and that makes you no different than anyone else who lives in hate!” I decided that no matter how difficult it was, I was going to put myself in the shoes of the people on that road in those small towns who’s actions I was so deeply offended by. I ran some scenarios in my head and tried to figure out what things may have happened in their lives that I could relate to. Doing this allowed me to be empathetic. I still didn’t agree with what they were doing but I didn’t have a hate filled response to the situation, which meant I put love out into the world instead of more hate and judgment.
That’s the thing about empathy. It changes our perspective of everything. It is deeper than compassion and takes much more work to succeed at. Another thing I’ve recognized in this perseverance to better understand empathy is that I’ve always felt it. But it’s not easy to feel so like most of my emotions I drank it away. Today it’s a practice to feel empathy and allow my responses to reflect that. I’m looking forward to learning and sharing more in the future about this subject.
Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care