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"I've learned that I have to use my own strengths and weaknesses to reach out, gently peek behind the curtain, be humble, and actively pursue a course of active engagement."

The subject of empathy and seeking its understanding can be an all-consuming task. I realized
that since an awakening in the early 1990s I have been trying to encompass the tenets of
empathy in my life and my interpersonal, social and community interactions. I’d like to think
that I succeed more often than I fail but an honest assessment reveals that I often struggle and
need to do better. It is helpful to look at its classic definition and then examine some of the
milestones along my (and others) journey to seek an even stronger commitment to understand
and help others. Let me share some of that journey –

The definition of empathy in an online dictionary is the ability to understand and share
the feelings of another. This seems so simple on the surface, but empathy is an active
process, not a passive one. So, I need to examine further my perception of empathy
and to truly understand the meaning of being within (‘em’) another person’s suffering
(‘pathos’).

An early milestone in my journey was to internalize the words from health care
futurist, Leland Kaiser. For anything happening in my community, I need to realize that
“I am the problem, I am the solution, I am the resource.” By accepting personal
responsibility in issues that face my fellow citizens, I am acknowledging that I need to
be part of the solution and engage my resources. When I do acknowledge these three
things, I am starting to learn how to take positive steps along with others to strengthen
certain activities and work toward rectifying areas for improvement.

I made an early checklist of some of the activities that can be action steps for me as I
worked to practice empathy –

 

  • Empathy reminds us that we are all in this together;
  • Empathy reminds us that the actions of others cannot necessarily be judged by
    us;
  • Empathy reminds us that, rather than judge others, we should make tangible
    strides in improving the life of our community and the lives of others;
  • Empathy reminds us that we are responsible to a Greater Being than ourselves,
    and ultimately, we are here to serve others;
  • Empathy reminds us that the world doesn’t revolve around us, that we are just
    a small part, but capable of significant good.

 

Back in 2014, when reading an issue of the Journal of the American Medical
Association, I read a provocative explanation of the concept of mercy – “mercy is a
willingness to enter into the chaos of others…[and is a] developed human capacity that
involves hard, uncertain, and hidden work.” I subsequently went on to write about
this; that the chaos of others can be quite discomforting, yet it is the measure of our
ability to exhibit mercy and provide the nurturing care that is necessary to improve our
lives, the lives of others and the life of our community. To borrow a phrase from the
aforementioned article, “if the arc of [human compassion] is to ultimately bend toward
healing, mercy will be its fulcrum.” This reading provided for me such powerful words
and even instructions going forward.

When reading Basil Hero’s book The Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons from the Men who
went to the Moon, I learned about two virtues that the author cites as consistent in the
psychological profiles of the men that went to the Moon—1) devotion to something
greater than oneself and 2) the pursuit of the common good. These virtues are so
essential for people that are devoted to helping.
 Basil Hero’s book also noted that the space travelers appreciated the gifts that are
given to all humans—the planet Earth and life on planet Earth. Astronaut James
Lovell’s remarked in a statement that “we don’t go to heaven when we die, we go to
heaven when we’re born.” Such a statement embodies these gifts. It is provocative to
suggest that heaven is something other than that spiritual entity that we ascend to
after death. I am particularly intrigued with the concept of “heaven on earth” that
James Lovell mentions. It strikes me that such a revelation can indeed give us an
incentive to recognize the same and live accordingly, practicing empathy to the fullest.

The lifetime work of Bishop Michael Curry exudes empathy. In his recent book, Love is
the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Waters, he provides so many examples of
empathy, but I was struck with an example of opposites that stood out to me. He
mentions that opposite of love is not hate but rather selfishness – “If love looks
outward, to the good of the other, then its opposite isn’t hate.  Its opposite is
selfishness!  It’s a life completely centered on the self…that nothing good ever comes
out of selfishness and greed.” This worldly view now instructs me to look at ways to
recognize more of my own selfishness and be more empathic.

The most recent milestone for me is the reading of Caste: The Origins of our
Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. As Americans, we quickly condemn the long-standing
caste system of India and the fortunately short-lived caste system of Nazi Germany.
Yet we fail to recognize our own caste system that has survived for centuries here and
will require significant efforts to dismantle. The end of slavery, the end of the Civil
War, and even the civil rights legislation of the 1960s have still not broken down the
aspects of a caste system that can poison our society if we are truly seeking to care for
each other. In the Epilogue of her book, I was moved to hear about Albert Einstein’s
perceptive recognition of the existing caste system (with overt racism) in the USA
shortly after his arrival in 1932 (fleeing Germany) and long into his time here in our
country. And I was struck by the Ms. Wilkerson’s discussion of empathy and radical
empathy – “Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is looking across at someone and
feeling sorrow, often in times of loss. Empathy is not pity. Pity is looking down from
above and feeling a distant sadness for another in their misfortune. Empathy is
commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imaging how you
would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it
is not enough in the ruptured world that we live in. Radical empathy, on the other
hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart
to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we
would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a
situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection
from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they
perceive.”

Ms. Wilkerson puts an even finer point on radical empathy – “In our era, it is not
enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine,
the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in winter. You tolerate what you would
rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated.
Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them.”

Given the signposts above, I see that my introspection reveals that I am making headway on
this journey I now seek toward radical empathy. I know that “mere” empathy is insufficient,
and that I have to be more than “just” tolerant of the plight of others. The active process of
empathy, willing to enter in the chaos of others (‘em’) and delve into their suffering (‘pathos’),
can be emotionally draining and equally chaotic. I have to use my own strengths and
weaknesses to reach out, gently peek behind the curtain, be humble, and actively pursue a
course of active engagement. Role-playing is not enough. I know that I have it within me to do
this, but I will need strength, endurance and be willing to recognize my own humanity as I make
strides forward and probably some steps backward. I am ready to stay engaged.

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Robert Saul

Pediatrician, medical geneticist, author

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