Thursday, November 09, 2006

Empathy

The Y chromosome seems to have a gene attached to it that causes carriers of this gene to engage in, for lack of better words, “one-up-man-ship”. You've all seen it before. A group of Y chromosome carriers form together in a small group and start sharing personal stories. Each successive story is slightly more extreme than the previous. Before long the stories have grown to the point that it's obvious that at least some of the facts have been fabricated or a best, embellished. Like all carriers I've been guilty of my share of this behavior.
Several years ago I came to the realization that when I'm in this type of situation it is not important to win the discussion. I believe that since then I have been able to share the experiences of others and just enjoy them without feeling the need to search through my own experiences to find something comparable.
One area that I still find this gene showing its head is whenever I am put in a situation where I have to show empathy. A coworker of mine is going to be out for a couple weeks for some rather serious surgery. It's one of several follow up surgeries that he's had as a result of a more serious surgery when he was younger. When he shared his experience my heart and went out to him. In an effort to understand and sympathize with him that little gene started pulling up my own hospital stories and experiences. Although they fell far short of his, I shared them anyway. I was attempting to empathize with him but I feel like I ending up just coming across like just another guy trying to tell a better story. That was honestly not my intent. I have never been through anything remotely similar to what he has. My pitiful comparison was only meant for me to show that I can't even imagine how rough it must be for him. Somehow I feel like my effort came across like this, "So you had your arm sawed off. Wow! That must have hurt. I had a paper cut once and it must be at least as bad as that."
I heard a story about the Dali Lama that captured how I would like to be able to respond. He was hearing the plight of a family who was going through some immense suffering. Only a few minutes into the story he was in tears. There was nothing phony or artificial about what he was going through. He had not been through the same hardships. However, he listened so intently with all of his soul that the suffering of the family actually became his own. There was no need to find comparable events in his history that only failed to measure up. He bypassed that step and sought only to feel the same suffering that they did. He succeeded.
Since hearing this story I have tried to follow his model. I fear that my attempts are failing. I will keep on trying to suppress my genetic need to find historical corollaries and hopefully move toward true empathy.
I believe the secret is love. Once I learn to truly love my fellow man I will be able to fully share their joy as well as their sufferings without having to create artificial links to my own experiences. For now, I will keep working at it. My real prayer is that the suffering of those I love will just cease. I will gladly share their burdens if necessary, but I look forward to sharing their joy as well.

3 comments:

  1. Several years ago, probably about the time I started really studying psychology, I noticed the same thing you did about how people respond to stories intended to show a level of empathy. I gave up trying to relate personal experiences, because no matter how similar they always ended up failing to achieve their desired impact.

    Imagine if the opposite situation were true, this person had a paper cut, and you explain how you can empathize because you cut off your arm once. In either situation the story puts the focus on you instead of the person you are trying to console.

    I think that second X gives people more options. Phrases such as "Bless your heart," and "Oh, you poor thing" tend to express the sentiment I'm feeling, but I'm not sure they'd have the same impact coming from me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree. By sharing a personal story the focus changes to me and not them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed.... Thanks.

    ReplyDelete