“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey
When I started to awaken at age 60, I had no concept of empathy. To put it mildly, I was a selfish S.O.B. steeped in work and obsession for material things. I almost always took the role of victim, blaming everyone else and every situation and even God for my wretched lot in life.
A year passed after my beginning when, during an experiential workshop, I was given the pseudo-name “Let’s blame you!” It did not make sense at first to my addled brain. In fact, it took a day or two before I became aware of the poverty of my thinking and approach to life. I failed to take responsibility, thus placing the blame externally for any negative happenstance.
During the same workshop, I also became aware of my distrust of other people. Somewhere in my childhood, I learned to be on guard, hyper-vigilant, and distrustful. As I grew into a man, I placed increasing emphasis on material possessions as a way of comforting myself. Relationships with people took secondary importance, let alone pursuing some sort of spiritual path. I had to learn the meaning of empathy.
In my journey, as I let go of those old ways, I discovered the word empathy. I had to look it up in a dictionary: “The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Empathy differs from sympathy in that sympathy is an emotion often equated with pity, sadness for the other, a feeling of helplessness, or an ego-driven judgment: “There for the grace of God go I.” Empathy, on the other hand, is not just a feeling gifted to a few. It is a cognitive pursuit of the other.
Before I became aware, this idea of understanding the other person “did not compute”. However, as I learned to trust and open up, I suddenly could employ empathy to connect more deeply with other people. I came to feel their feelings, identify with their struggles, and, most importantly, experience their humanity as my own. In short, I could put myself in the other person’s shoes.
The awakening man, as his awareness grows, connects more deeply with others. Empathy rises in his psyche, a gift of the soul. He recognizes each individual’s humanity, and he feels the wonder of the divinity that resides in the other. Subjective, selfish living gives way to the gifts of empathy: kindness, caring, compassion, and a desire to be of service to humankind.
Empathy is circumscribed by love. It encompasses all in selfless and prayerful attitude. Its gift is awe at this incredible living world we inhabit for this brief time. Please practice this value in all aspects of you living. Carry its presence in every thought, action, and feeling that drives you to be a better human being. It is not a burden. In your journey, seek the call to a mission in your existence here, now, in all your doings and actions. It is an imperative to being fully aware. It is a value of the soul, which cannot be denied!