Tuesday 30 October 2007


I’ve been thinking about empathy. It’s something I’m not short of, I think – short as I am of so much that is useful for life in the 21st century
:-) - and this is both a blessing and a curse. Partly it’s innate, a matter of temperament, goes with being quiet, introspective, imaginative; partly, I think, the result of growing up the held-close only child of a mother who craved understanding and sympathy and cast me in the role of providing them.

Of course, a capacity for empathy is important, desirable and essential to decent, caring co-existence on any scale from the familial to the global. Of course, to a certain level, it’s entirely to be approved of and encouraged. But perhaps you can have too much. It can paralyse. It can make life too hard.

I can’t imagine being a nurse or doctor. Not because I’m squeamish about blood and entrails – on the contrary, a certain creepy fascination there. More because I feel I would absorb everyone’s pain and be incapacitated by horror and sadness. Perhaps this is not entirely true, and I could become accustomed. I suspect I could not become sufficiently accustomed. So it’s clearly a very, very good thing not everyone has the same temperament and susceptibilities. I know a woman who is a nurse on an acute psychiatric ward. She’s gentle and patient, but about as lacking in empathy as anyone I’ve ever known, seemingly without any capacity to imagine or curiosity to know what it is like to be another. I rather think this is part of what makes her good at the job, able to be there day after day, kind and present and gently interested and only occasionally overwhelmed.

I speak in extremes, of course, where there are only subtle gradations. I know that not all nurses and doctors, and others who live and work daily with extremes of suffering, are like that woman, that some, perhaps the best, do have enormous empathy, but have learned a difficult, blessed skill of standing aside from it when that’s what needed. I absolutely do NOT mean to say: I cannot do this because, oh, I am so sensitive! it’s harder for me than it is for someone else! How can I ever know (I’m not THAT empathetic) how anything feels for someone else?

I speak in extremes because I know why I seek empathy in others and value it – no question there - but need to focus on what is problematic about it.

Someone I care about had some terrible news recently, you see. I feel for them. Their face, their fear, are in my mind and heart all the time. So much that I am paralysed by my feelings, sliding away from them into depression, and scarcely able to function. This is hardly a state where I can be there for a dear friend just at the time they may need it most, is it? So my empathy, my sensitivity - which on the whole I do value, although they make life difficult – have been feeling like something I need to get a different handle on, in order to deal with this tough stuff, the kind of tough stuff that happens to all of us sooner or later.

I don’t want to be unfeeling. I don’t really want to be different from who I am – what a fruitless desire that would be, anyway. But to have a different relationship to these strong feelings of empathy, connection. My Buddhist teachers would speak, I think, of experiencing them in a broader context, a deeper container; that resonates, certainly, but I think I have grasped it only intellectually, not experientially.

There’s an oft-repeated story about the Dalai Lama that both moves me and makes me cringe. It is said that he once attended a peace conference in Northern Ireland; that, while the bereaved and maimed and the repentant gave their testimonies, he was seen to lay his head on the shoulder of an aide and weep continuously; that shortly afterwards, at a press call, sandwiched between two grave, white-bearded bishops, he laughed delightedly, reached up and tweaked their beards. No one who knows him thinks him superficial; that his tears, because they dissolve so fast, come too easily and mean nothing. Somehow he is able to hold both intense suffering and… well, and everything else along with it, so there is not just the suffering. This is so difficult, so foreign to anything I've ever experienced – I think that is why I cringe.

I cringe too, though, at my own inability to keep living in the knowledge of something hard and sad and terrible, except by numbing myself. I don’t want to numb myself. But I do want, and need, to keep living, not to only be in pain in sympathy with someone else’s pain. How did I get to such an advanced age with so little idea about this? Is it too late to learn another way?


Dale said...

My lama, Michael, squired the Dalai Lama about San Francisco some, many many years ago (before he attained superstar status), and he tells a similar story, of his Holiness listening to the stories of Tibetan refugees, survivors who'd made it to America, with tears rolling down his face, and moments later happily laughing at something silly.

I think it's an admirable way to be. And (if you take the Dalai Lama as an authority) it points to the solution: that the problem is not in how we receive and resonate with the suffering of others, but in our inability to release it.

I find tonglen practice very useful in this; but some people find it overwhelming and counterproductive. There are many things in me that may look like empathy, but aren't empathy: revulsion, and anger, and fear of annihilation -- a whole array of feelings -- which are certainly "feeling bad because somebody else feels bad," but which are neither admirable nor useful (to me, to them, or to anyone else.)

Jean said...

Dale, I'm afraid your last point is true of me too, and you are right to point this out. It's important to see the difference, though I think this may not always be clear-cut. I don't wish to deny these, but I guess I thought it might be easier to try and work with the part of this that comes from my better instincts and character traits. I also think you're being very hard on yourself, and thus by extension also perhaps a bit hard on me :-)

rbarenblat said...

For me, an important piece has been coming to terms with the reality that when someone I love is in a difficult spot, what they need most is my loving presence. They don't need me to be strong, or to have answers, or (this is the biggest one) to make them feel better (as though I had the power to do that! though most of the time I'm attached to the fiction that I do, and I want so badly to be capable of it)...they just want me to be there.

In a way, this is profoundly frustrating. (You mean it's not whatever I do, the magical words I say, that make me valuable?) In another way, it's a tremendous relief (because I don't have to be anything other than what I am -- just alive, and present, and listening.)

I offer this in case any of it resonates for you.

Jean said...

Rachel, yes it does. In a way, it's the only thing I want to hear. Because it's certainly the only thing I have to give. So thank you.

Zhoen said...

"absorb everyone’s pain and be incapacitated by horror and sadness. Perhaps this is not entirely true, and I could become accustomed"

I don't think I am accustomed, nor do I absorb the pain. I think I take all the pain and ACT. Training helps, because instead of just feeling sorry, I can do something to make it better. Not enough, but all I can. Feeling sad or horrified without becoming sad and horrible, perhaps. I think that painful oversensitivity is easier to carry since I have work for it to do. Making my neuroses work for me.

Anonymous said...

As a child, I remember my Mother returning from the hospital and announcing my Father had died. Everyone started crying and tried to console her. I smiled at her, I remember her saying,"he doesn't understand.But I haven't stopped crying, always silently and in private.Upon her death, I couldn't visibly cry,quietly I thanked her, then moved along the line.

leslee said...

I don't have anything to add to help. I like what Rachel says and it rings true. After my mom died it was helpful just to have friends checking in on me. Some people had gone through it and had their experience to share, which was helpful, but not everyone did. Some just offered to be there. It's all you can do.

Dale said...

Yikes! Didn't mean to be hard on you. I just meant that releasing some of what we're holding as empathy may not be selfish at all -- that the dichotomy between doing what's good for others and doing what's good for me (in the way of getting overwhelmed with empathy) may be a false one.

MB said...

I've had to take a good look at this and over time have come to view it a little differently... something about the balance between empathy and being here now... between being in the moment and being in the past and/or future.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, this is such an impossible subject to deal with, both when confronted with it personally, as you are, and looking at it from the outside, discussing it. I have been in the same position as you and could echo what you wrote almost word for word, but can also echo the thoughts of everyone else who has commented here. But all I know is that I know nothing and that there is no satisfactory answer to the huge problem of the suffering of others. In a way it's a bigger problem than dealing with one's own suffering. Because, if you are in your own great pain, physically-mentally-spiritually and whatever the pain is, it's happening to you and not to someone you love, then at least you have something tangible to grapple with and your actions and reactions are the result of your own volition (even if it means giving up). But to love others (or *some* others) deeply, be wholly engaged with them, confronts us with the biggest question of all: HOW do I "love my neighbour?" What action do I take on their behalf, if any? At least a doctor or nurse or therapist can take those actions prescribed by their training (whether love enters into it or not). On a wider scale we can attend or organise protests, contribute to charities, or personally join those who choose to give their lives to a specific cause dedicated to alleviating suffering in a particular place and time. All of this involves decision and action: in other words, an alternative to simply "being there" with empathy (but not SO much empathy that we become paralyzed). I tend to react in the latter way but everything in me craves for the active path. That's what's so hard: being caught in the middle.

Loren said...

Atticus Finch in to Kill a Mockingbird spent most of the novel teaching his children to have empathy for others, but that same empathy forced him to take action to change an unjust world, even though he knew he couldn’t win.

I think all of us are caught up in that same dilemma, and it's probably "healthy" to be aware of it.

If we're doing all we can do to help the other person, though, I really believe that empathy can make us stronger not weaker.

I would hate to spend my life unaware of other's pain and how I affect it.

Lucy said...

Just here.

Beth said...

"Just being there" is actually the thing I often want to run away from. Feeling another person's suffering isn't hard for me. What's hard is living with it over the long haul. I don't want my family and friends to have long wasting diseases - it can be horrible for them, and for everyone around them. You have to face not only their suffering, and your own anticipated or incremental loss, but your projection of yourself into the same position, wondering who would stand by YOU, and not run away. It is very difficult to stand there and not flinch. What I learned during my mother's long illness, which we all knew would be terminal, was that I helped her most when I was able to hold both the joy of being alive, and the sadness together. We didn't talk about her death much; she didn't want to. What she wanted to do was live as normally as possible, and for people around her to reflect some of the joy she had always found in life. So I think I learned during those years to acknowledge in some tacit way what was going on, but to just be myself and do normal things with her to whatever extent she was able. It was much better for me, and better for her, and it taught me that we go right on living until the time we lose our capacities. I asked myself, "what kind of friend would I want to be with, if I were her?" and it helped me to figure some of this out. And there were also plenty of times when I simply wanted to run away, or when I was terribly angry, or unable to move at all, and had to bring myself back, just like in meditation. It's very hard, but it's life, isn't it? I wish it weren't.

Sky said...

I struggle with this issue myself from time to time and when I do inevitably the issue comes back to ME and the emotional place I am in at the time. Often my feelings of empathy unleash a fear of the event happening to me more directly or my fear of my own powerlessness in my human condition. Sometimes I might need emotional space from everyone because I have only enough inner energy/strength for me at the moment. Feelings of paralysis and depression give me the opportunity and permission to take the space I need for myself, even if I feel guilty while taking it. There are so many internal struggles which can spark this, and I find that my reactions are always about my personal filters and never purely about empathy with others despite the fact that I am a deeply feeling and empathetic person. When I am out of balance the story is about ME. I hope that my sharing this has not offended you. I am sharing my own experiences and not in any way inferring you and I are the same. I say this because of your comment to Dale. When I read his comment I so fully agreed with him and then I read your response to him and felt nervous about sharing mine.

Jean said...

Thank you all so much for sharing your perspectives on these difficult feelings. Dale and Sky especially, you have made me think a lot, and helpfully. I don't necessarily agree with you - I both do and don't, I think - but being provoked to think about this has been very helpful, and actually encouraging, because what is about ME, of course, I have the power the change.