Empathy — and Vulnerability

Being empathetic toward another is perhaps the greatest gift that we can give, and one of the most profound aspects of being human — of connecting deeply with others.  Yet it can also be surprisingly difficult.  Sympathy — “I’m sorry for your pain” — is relatively easy, as it keeps us in the position of control: “I’m sorry that you’re in pain … and glad that I’m not.  I can afford to feel bad for you because it costs me little emotionally.”

Empathy, however, is a matter of identifying with the feelings of another, though in a way that doesn’t detract from what he or she is feeling in order to shift the focus to ourselves. To do so, we must not only understand those feelings but enter into them — that is, experience them ourselves, while maintaining healthy boundaries.  Your pain is not my pain — but it can feel like my pain, if I allow for that, all the while keeping a clear awareness of distinction.  And only then can I truly understand it … and you. The same with joy: your joy / pleasure / happiness is mine as well, and I can feel good on your behalf because I have entered into that feeling with you.

This deep resonance with the feelings of others is critical to relationships, both personal and professional.  It’s the core essence of connectedness, without which we’re isolated.  And that connection with other human beings is what creates community, society, culture … humanity.

And yet: with it comes vulnerability.

I can no longer remain separate from another if I’m empathetic, for there is now a bond between us.  I can no longer maintain distinctions of me/you, us/them, friend/enemy, male/female, young/old, no longer generate an impression of “Other”. This experience of empathy can break down walls and barriers, prevent wars and other skirmishes, bring us together in times of disaster or crisis, increase our acceptance of cultural and religious differences, help us to heal the damage we’ve collectively done to the earth.  I can’t maintain the illusion of control, of separateness, of superiority in the context of empathy.

And this requires a great amount of trust, often in a stranger, in order to allow myself to be vulnerable, to resonate with the feelings of another.  It’s so much easier to remain emotionally distant, feeling far safer and more secure in the core of one’s being.  Yet in order to achieve the greatest potential, individually and as a species, we absolutely must cultivate empathy.  We must take that risk — the risk of being hurt, the risk of appearing foolish, the risk of being vulnerable to another.

It isn’t easy. But it is necessary.

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