I want to talk about empathy. Not sympathy. Sympathy according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”
In contrast empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Feelings of pity, sorrow and commiserations with others doesn’t have a place alongside empathy.
When I was a child I used to have an overabundance of empathy without really knowing what it was or where it came from. This manifested in the most bizarre ways. Like the time I cried when a tree was cut down; I could literally FEEL it screaming. Or when I had to stop reading Anne Franks Diary at 14 because of the nightmares that shadowed my every sleeping and waking thought, and the tears that ran for the futility of it all. Or the time I was distraught because my favourite teddy had a hole in her leg, and how painful that must be.
Empathy is not necessarily a blessing either. As an adult with an intensity of emotions and imagination, empathy can make watching films tricky, my mood can be profoundly effected by music and watching the news, especially these days, a big no-no.
When I am tired or ill my tolerance and ability to block out things that are not mine is lower, so I am much more receptive to moods and pain felt by those close to me. I had belly aches when my sister went into labour, headaches when she had migraines and when my friend (Ruby – see this post) is having more pain than usual I can usually tell because my body also hurt in the same place. Even though I was on the opposite side of the country or at least five hours away, in these instances distance doesn’t seem to matter. When this happens I have to consciously pause, take a deep breath and build an imaginary shield stopping the empathy rays from getting to me.
It’s not all bad of course. I can help my husband pick shoes by knowing how comfortable they feel when he tries them on, I can pick with scary accuracy where the back/shoulders/neck muscles have a knot or are out of alignment, and can usually know what’s going on with people within a few minutes of meeting them. I’m able to show compassion to the people who need it the most and it helps enormously with my teaching. Oh, and I’m GREAT in bed!
And I choose kindness, every time I can, because everyone is dealing with something; such is the nature of life. So this week, I invite you to provide Acts of Kindness for no reason other than to assist a fellow human being, and make life a little easier for them. I’ll leave you with this quote which says it much better than I can.
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson