A few weeks ago, my friend and I were discussing the meaning of life. I realize how dramatic that sounds, and yes, we usually talk about more mundane things, idle chit chat. But occasionally, we have a deep conversation, fueled by a beer or two, which often leads to some profound truth. This was one of those moments.
I launched into an elaborate lecture on my philosophy as she listened patiently. Brevity isn’t my strong suit. When I was done, I turned to her and asked, “What do you think?”
“It is empathy,” she simply said.
It took me a while to process the idea, but the more I considered it, the clearer it became. She is absolutely right. Empathy is the why, the where, and the how of our existence here on earth. It is a powerful force that can connect us to each other in profound ways.
If you have ever visited a hospital nursery, you have probably witnessed the phenomena of innate empathy. Newborns will lie in wide-eyed wonder, often still and quiet. But if a nearby infant begins to cry, they will respond in kind. Nurses call this the domino effect as they try to calm a room full of fussy little ones. But it wasn’t until scientists tried the same experiment with recordings that they truly understood the sociological implications. A baby will silently listen to the sound of his own cries, but if that is replaced by the sound of another infant’s weeping, he will soon join in, creating a chorus of wailing. There is no other logical way to explain this phenomenon other than to suggest that we are programmed at birth to feel what others feel.
So what happens to us as we grow older? Do we become more cynical, moving away from what our hearts tell us to a place where we are outwardly motivated? Do we lose our ability to recognize what others are feeling from their point of view, replacing it with our own perception? Are we discouraged from showing that we care, fearful that it will be viewed as a form of weakness? Or worse yet, do we think that we somehow lose something of our own when we unselfishly strive to understand and help others?
Honestly, I don’t know.
There are numerous Biblical references to empathy. We are told in Corinthians that if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. And we are reminded that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. All of the world’s great religions have a similar tenant in their doctrines. And so it follows that in most societies empathy is a highly prized quality. We revere the concerned doctor, the caring teacher, the selfless missionary. A high EQ (empathy quotient) is, in some ways, more important than a high IQ. But not always. As we mock others for having a tender heart, we send a signal that it is wrong to care so much. Unfortunately, this is the playground message we send to our children. And with each generation, the idea that it is right to weep when your friend weeps is given less prominence. I pray that our “me first” culture won’t lead us into a place where we no longer see consideration as a strength. I fear for the unraveling of our civilization.
In truth, emotions are the magnetic field of the soul. So is it any wonder that when others connect to those emotions, we allow them to truly come to understand who we are? There is a special bond between the downtrodden, the troubled, the grieving, the hurting and those who attempt to understand what they are experiencing in an effort to console. We know that it is the first step toward compassionate action, the doing behind the feeling. And it is priceless.
We have all been told by some well-meaning person, “I know how you feel,” as we bravely relate a personal tale of woe. And of course, it’s not possible to truly spend time in another’s shoes. I was met with some of that on this cancer journey, and the comment always seemed to trivialize what I was experiencing.
“No, you don’t,” I wanted to scream. Instead, I simply nodded, too weak to take on the battle.
But the best answer I got was from a friend who sat at the edge of my bed, asking about my pain and prognosis. I related my challenges and my fears as she listened. Her reply was simple, yet perfect.
“I can only imagine.,” she said, tears in her eyes.
Therein lies the key. All any of us can do is imagine the challenging experiences of another human being and lend a patient ear. And if we shed a tear in shared sorrow, somehow, we help to heal those wounds.
Let’s face it, kindness, the primary tenant in empathy, changes things. And people. (By the way, the first three letters spell “kin,” a reminder that we are all part of this vast human family. Makes sense, right?)
The biggest letter on the eye chart is an E. Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps a reminder that it is the most important quality, the secret to a fulfilling life and ultimate connection is empathy.