Empathy… the power that just keeps on GIVING
“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” ~Meryl Streep
There is a highly learnable skill known as empathy, which D. M. Berger defines as “The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person. It is the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.” In essence to empathize means to share – to experience the feelings of another person, which enables us with every human encounter we have, even with a stranger – to have the capacity to close down or open up.
Let’s say you have an important appointment at the bank… and the employee working with you seems distracted, strangely distant and unconcerned with your affairs. He keeps forgetting what you just told him, you keep repeating things to him, and you can feel your frustration mounting as this behavior continues to disappoint you throughout your appointment. Eventually you are just left infuriated, thinking “Why did they hire someone so incompetent?!”
Fast forward to…
The man excuses himself and hurries outside. All you can think is “Right, where is the manager?” Moments later the manager appears. She carefully explains that her colleague’s wife and child have been seriously injured in a car accident – his wife is in a coma and his child is on life support. It is at this point when your empathy kicks in and you can completely understand his behavior and awful predicament.
Anytime you meet someone you have a choice. You can either stubbornly insist on seeing him in relationship to your own desires, wants and needs, as in the case of the bank employee, where you just see him as an obstacle and a pain in the neck. Or you can regard him as a being just like you, who longs for happiness and yearns to be free from pain. You have the choice to either embrace the other person or cut them off by paying attention to only those aspects of his behavior that affect you at the given moment, without taking into account that something may actually be going on with him.
When I meet people I am often reminded of the importance of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, and realizing that what YOU are observing is limited by your 5 senses. Benefit of the doubt allows you to consider that what you feel or see may not be accurate. It allows for another explanation outside of yourself and therefore an opportunity for connection, intimacy and growth for all those you encounter during your day.
David Foster Wallace was a brilliant American writer. He gave this analogy: There were 2 young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish says, “Hi boys. How’s the water?” The 2 young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one looks over at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. He goes on to say that a huge percentage of the things we are automatically certain of turn out to be wrong and deluded.
Sadly, as human beings we tend to think that we are the most important person in existence, a natural self-centeredness that often goes by without being approached and dealt with. Self-centeredness is defined as the concern only for oneself – a rather repulsive way of living – but think about it. There is no experience you’ve had that you are not the absolute center of; other people’s thoughts have to be communicated to you, while your own thoughts and feelings are immediate, urgent and real to you. It is only natural that we interpret everything through this lens of self, but living a life of self-centeredness completely excludes others and their needs, wants and desires.
Upon reading David Foster Wallace’s work I happened upon this analogy… Here is a little slice of life for you… Does this sound familiar? … On an average day, you get up in the morning, go to a challenging job – work the 8-10 hours you need to and then at the end of a stressful day, you go home, cook dinner, unwind and then you get up and do it all over again… Lather, rinse, and repeat, right? But then, once you get home, you notice that there isn’t any food in the house, and that’s when you remember that you haven’t done the shopping! (NO!) So, after pulling yourself together, you get back in the car and go to the super market, but now the traffic is bad and it is just one thing after the next. Shopping takes longer than it should because it is Monday, so of course they are out of all your favorite food, the line is backed up, people are talking loudly on their cell phones, you can feel the slight twinge of a headache coming on – kids are running amuck and screaming. This is the last place you want to be, the line seems unending, you just want to go home, eat and unwind… and just when it comes time to pay, that little light at the end of the tunnel, you notice that the lady at the front of the line is armed with a stack of coupons and she is also paying with a check. The point is YOU ARE OFFICIALLY FRUSTRATED, and this is where the work of choosing comes in.
If we don’t make the conscious decision of HOW TO THINK and WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO we will be miserable and frustrated about everything – from food shopping to the injustice of our childhood and to any wrong that was committed against us… ever… large or small.
When we stay in the mindset of “It’s all about me” – all about MY hungriness, MY fatigue, MY desire to just get home, then this automatic reaction doesn’t give you much choice. But there are different ways to think about these situations.
To change your way of thinking takes will and mental effort. It’s really about accepting this simple idea: Do you want to operate on reacting to things that happen or do you want to look at every situation that comes into your life and see it as an opportunity for growth and change?
The essence of our lives is to grow and share. Empathy allows us to share in experiences, and it allows us to come together through understanding. We may all be unique, but we encounter similar daily problems all the time. You can choose to interpret the reason for getting cut off in traffic is due to the fact the driver was perhaps a father rushing his child to the ER. Or that the woman on the street begging for food has 5 children she needs to feed and support because her husband just died and they lost their home and belongings, and she sees no other way out.
We can judge or we can give people the benefit of the doubt, which develops our sense of empathy, limits our daily frustrations because we can see outside of ourselves, unite through our empathetic understanding and become enriched through the experience. The real importance of life involves attention, awareness, and the ability to truly be able to care for other people. REMEMBER that you never really know what someone else has encountered today – simply give him or her the benefit of the doubt.
1. Think about the last time you got irritated by someone who cut you off in traffic?
2. How did you react to it?
3. Consider how you can use the power of empathy to avoid this from occurring again.