I have found, when I am sick with the everything-is stuffed-up-my-sinuses-and-I-can-cook-eggs-on-my-forehead type sick, that I get stuck on sound of words. Wizzle is one. It just makes me feel better to say it and I wind up wandering around making up little sing-songs that include the sound – whizzle whizzle whiz whiz whizzle whizzle whiz! Fortunately, most of the time, I can keep this form of public entertainment to myself.
I had a very interesting conversation with someone yesterday and somehow it turned to what they consider to be the most dangerous type of person to interact with – the one for whom fear and anger is balanced. They said (and its their lifelong profession so they get cred) that when fear and anger co-exist, the result is the person becomes incapable of empathy. Everything is rooted to how they feel and what they want and they are driven to find safety – whether it is safety achieved by finding comfort for themselves or the kind of perverse safety found in exerting control over another – it is their primary motivation. When you add in anger, you get someone who can never be or feel safe and also, does not want anyone else to be safe because they want to extract or inflict pain.
The conversation came about because it was a day long theme – lack of empathy. I got the opportunity to sit and spend several hours with someone I have only heard about (and admired from afar) and she told me about her increasing interactions with people that really showcased how there is a rising lack of empathy or even, value of empathy, in our culture.
Snippets of phrases:
“It would be easier for me to be around a child that is dying then an adult.”
“I asked my students to write about a social problem and its possible solutions and one student picked homelessness and said it was a problem because they smelled bad, dressed ugly and took up space and the solution is they needed to go.”
“(on the death of someone’s mother) Why did she do this to me?”
A lack of empathy involves a constant reframing of events to see how they relate to the person experiencing them that disregards the other life involved. The only regard for the other life is determined by the extent that the person (without empathy) has understood or accepted that other person’s being and experience. There is no capacity to feel for another unless the experience is pre-validated as worthy.
And you find that even in our “healing arts” that we are training people not to be empathetic. We teach them that to listen means to ask “what do you mean by that?” or to express support means to say “I know what you are going through.” All phrases that sound good until you look at them and realize that both are rooted in the person either explaining themselves and their experience to someone else in a way that the someone else can understand and relate to it through their own experience, or the someone else begins by equating the other’s experience to their own.
While we may share similar experience, there is none that we share exactly and equating experience closes the door on empathy because it sets boundaries to the other person expressing how they feel.
It is, as I talked about earlier in the week, the “I” without any sense of the “We.” The sense of “We” has been corrupted to only be defined by what the “I” can understand and validate.
But there is much in life that we cannot share experientially with people. But that does not mean that we cannot suspend our “I” and our need to understand and have the safety of understanding (because understanding means you can imagine what can possibly happen) to assume the emotional experience of the other person’s experience.
We all share the same emotional range. That bit is hard wired, its just how we put together our emotions in response to the same events that is always different. But because they are the same we can experience empathy with another even if the event would not have affected us in the same way.
“It’s not that bad.”
“I don’t understand why you feel that way.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“This too will pass.”
All of those are dismissive of the other person’s very real experience. They prevent us from listening.
The person I sat with told me a story about holding a woman who was dying in her arms while the nurse was attending to her and the distraught family was all around. The woman passed away in her arms and she called out to the nurse softly to let her know. It took a split second for the both of them to decide that the thing to do was to announce to the family that they should bring everyone into the room because the woman was “going.” In that moment, they suspended all they needed to do and their own experience of holding the woman and caring for her in the moment of death and recognized that the family needed to be allowed to go through the moment of passage. Because that moment was more about them then a medical point in time. It was more than what could be explained or understood, every person there was going to have a unique experience in the exact same moment and circumstances.
c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.