By Catherine DiMercurio
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. I’ve noticed that empathy comes easily, almost involuntarily for some. For others, it seems to be a completely voluntary act, guided by their judgement or determination of worthiness. In these ways, empathy functions almost as a system within us, like the respiratory system, which can also be either voluntary or involuntary. We breathe whether we think about it or not, but we can also choose to control our breath – we can hold it, we can release it, we can slow it down or speed it up. Perhaps our empathic systems function in the same way. Maybe it’s not one of those “there are two kinds of people in the world” situations. Maybe there aren’t those of us who feel empathy for others almost uncontrollably and others who award their empathy at will. Perhaps, we can do both. Should we?
For highly empathic people, life can be a dizzying ride. We often find ourselves in-taking the emotions of those around us. It’s easy to say things like, I understand how you feel, because we find ourselves feeling it too. We are surrounded – in our minds – by our memories and our emotions about those memories all the time. It’s not difficult to draw on them, particularly when we see someone struggling with their own emotions, or in a challenging situation, or feeling misunderstood. Though dizzying, this way of walking through life is familiar, comfortable in its own powerful way.
On the other hand, I’ve had close relationships with people who are highly selective about the individuals they allow themselves to feel empathy for. It’s like a prize, a gift they offer, when they clearly convey a connection to how someone else feels. It can seem cold, and there’s often a set of factors at play that only they can see, factors that allow them to determine who is worthy of their empathy. What I understand of this way of being comes from my own experiences of being wounded enough by a person that I retreat, and I find myself shutting off that connection I once felt for them. It’s like holding my breath, a conscious decision to stop doing what comes naturally in order to protect my heart from further injury. This makes me wonder, are people who approach empathy this way – empathy awarders – also doing so as a way of protecting themselves? But from what, from whom? I suppose it is not difficult to understand that the world at large may seem threatening or unworthy. At the same time, when you approach people — strangers or acquaintances or anyone else — as individuals, I wonder if they seem as dangerous.
I understand needing to control our empathic breath on an individual basis. We all have people in our lives who form a clear and persistent danger to our soul health, and sometimes it’s best to maintain an emotional distance. It is difficult for me though to understand the withholding of empathy as a way of being, to understand those of us who refuse to even experiment with offering empathy for someone who may appear undeserving—say, someone who seemed rude while you waited in line to get your coffee, or someone with a different political ideology than you, or someone whose experiences – such as being poor, being discriminated against, or being sexually assaulted – are foreign to you. Practicing empathy, the way we might practice deep breathing exercises to combat anxiety, is the best tool we possess to combat our own biases.
Perhaps the hardest part of establishing and maintaining an empathy practice, of being cognizant of where our empathic energy flows, is letting it exist even for people whom we suspect might never have empathy for us. It’s challenging but I believe vital to the collective well-being of our selves, our communities, our world.
So, breathe. If empathy does not come naturally to you, experiment with it. If it does come naturally to you, but our current political climate has caused you shut off empathy channels you once left open, try again, breathe deeply once more, and try to remember how naturally it once came to you. Empathy breeds compassion and respect, and our world needs more of it.