Empathy, Compassion and the Root of Both
By WILLIAM PRENTISS
I lie here only able to hear, and that unknown to others, thinking about empathy and compassion, wondering about the root of both. What compels us to feel the plight of others, to desire to alleviate their suffering? What is the source of empathy and compassion?
Tolstoy’s theme for today was centered on the ameliorating effects of compassion, on both the bearer and the receiver, sometimes one and the same: If the foundation of our life were not of the same nature in all of us, then we would not be able to explain to each other those feelings of compassion which we really experience.
The stalk of compassion appears to be our commonality rooted in sameness. Sis often reminds, “No two people are alike.” She is right. Mankind’s duality evidences our uniqueness as individuals as well as our similarities. But, the underpinnings of our humanity provide a visceral frame of reference allowing apperceptive humans to understand, commiserate and attempt to relieve the suffering of others, largely based on our ability and willingness to “put ourselves in one’s shoes,” most often made possible because we have been there or thereabouts before.
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s angst or tribulations, which too often keeps its distance from the affected, leading to pity that alienates. Empathy goes further: the ability to vicariously feel another’s grief or pain through a recognition of shared experience, even if not exactly the same. Compassion involves doing something about another’s predicament—real caring!
Because we are human, created in the image of God—though not a replica—we are able to understand, feel for and attempt to lighten the load of others. Tolstoy goes deeper: Real compassion begins only when you put yourself in the place of those who suffer, and you feel real suffering. How can we feel real suffering when others suffer? Only by having suffered!
To myself and God alone, do I now speechlessly admit, I have always lacked empathy. Oh, I thought I had it, prayed for it, talked about it, but did little to secure it. I was lazy. I kind of felt for others, but too often through my own how-does-this-affect-me lens—not really empathy at all. Even when I had experienced something another was going through, I had trouble remembering what it was like. I might say a quick prayer for them, take a few minutes to simply commiserate, and then I was off taking care of me. That so ain’ right!
I would periodically look at the plight of others to help me be thankful for my present condition, but this was for me not them. Tolstoy wrote: There are many people who are more unhappy than you. This message cannot be a roof under which you may live, but it will be enough of a roof under which you may hide from storms. This never-to-be-over-used mindset should lead to thankfulness and action: a desire to assuage the pain of others.
A friend of mine’s idea of altruism was making sure his needs were met before attempting to meet those of others. This offended my Judeo-Christian sensibilities, until I started understanding that an incomplete person has difficulties meeting the needs of other incomplete persons, yet only the incomplete can truly understand the incomplete.
Tolstoy paraphrased the German philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer: Compassion expressed in response to rage is the same as water for fire. When you are in a rage, try to feel compassion for the other person, and then your rage will disappear.
Upon first hearing Sis read Shopenhauer’s directive, I assumed he was talking about meeting ugly with love, turning the other cheek, diffusing another’s anger with kindness and compassion. It was not until later, during the quiet, foggy hours of my non-linear existence that I realized the admonition was for my rage, not the rage of others directed at or near me. Wow!
When I am angry, I am to place myself as squarely as possible in the shoes of the object of my rage. I am to set aside my presuppositions, even if correct, about the other person’s intent or actions. I should try to understand him or her and in doing so I will pour water on my own fire. This makes sense. The other person is not the only one affected by my rage; I am affected by my rage. My soul withers from these types of harmful emotions.
Is it then selfish for me to quench my rage with compassion for my own sake? No! Not if it means I become a better person; and it does, mean that. In becoming more enlightened I am better able to love others. It’s a win/win! The difficulty lies in my willingness to humble myself and to set aside feelings, even if correct, for the sake of peace.
The funny—or maybe sad, or likely providential—thing about my being in a perceived coma is that my anger affects no one but me. God help me!
MORNINGS WITH TOLSTOY consists of the inner reflections of a man in a coma, the victim of a senseless beating. He can only hear, and no one knows this, but maybe his sister. Sis reads three devotional pieces daily and the internal dialogue reflects his response to them.