Thursday, January 18, 2007

practical empathy

Empathy in greek means to suffer with. I think there are many ways one can suffer along with another - whether by being moved on the basis of story or situation, by verbally sharing and connecting with another's plight in a person to person form, or by taking a more proactive stance and doing something practical that alleviates another's suffering.

As I reflect over the past week, I wonder which form of empathy has the greatest effect not only the individual in question, but in the world. I know that at times people need physical help. A place to sleep. Food. Mosquito netting. I like to think of that as tactical empathy. Sometimes we need a shoulder to cry on. One person connecting with another in a way that says: I feel you, and I care, and this too shall pass. Other times we hear a story so powerful, so gut wrenching, that we are transfixed and transformed by the plight of another person or community; Darfur, Katrina, James Kim. All of those fall into that category, as do a thousand other social tragedies.

And sometimes, all the empathy in the world doesn't mean there is a solution. Sometimes feeling another person's pain doesn't move us to do anything tangible about it. Sometimes we simply feel and let that feeling ride; hoping the empathy of others will make up for our own inertia.

And then I think of personal empathy; and what shape and form I allow myself to walk in another's shoes. Or allow them to walk in mine. And how responsible we are for allowing others to care for us, to share our sorrow, to lift us up.

I know when I think of someone empathizing with me I feel understood. That someone saw my struggle and did something beyond simply recognizing it. The "I notice you are struggling because you haven't slept in 3 days" becomes "You haven't slept in three days, so please let me get up with the baby so you can rest". I most value the empathy that comes without me having to ask. For example "I am so tired so can you please get up with the baby" even if responded to positively, means so much less than if I didn't have to ask.

Somehow I equate asking for help with weakness, and having to ask with resentment. This is a personal statement, one I do not equate at all to someone else asking for help. This one is reserved for me alone.

This belief system has caused me a lot of pain; and it invalidates those around me who care and would truly do anything I asked. But yet, that means I must run full circle back to the asking itself.

It's a funnybugger, this one.

And so it makes me wonder what we are all really asking for. Are we simply asking to be understood, or is it something deeper? Are we asking for the voice on the phone to simply understand, or are we secretly wishing the voice on the phone would do something more?

I think the answer to that depends on the situation we are facing. Sometimes a voice on the phone (or a comment on my blog) is exactly and all I need. Your empathy this week buoyed me, lifted me, it mattered. (thank you)

I remember when we first had M J worked nights. I was up all night long for days and was starting to lose my mind. I remember talking to a friend, crying, who told me that she was on her way over. And when she got here she took M, sent me to bed, and stayed up all night long with M so I could sleep. She sat awake in my living room for 6 hours and allowed me to rest.

It was the single best baby gift I have ever received, that one night, where I thought I might not make it another day. I never would have asked, but it was exactly what I needed.

I've needed more this week, and as a result of my not asking, I've not gotten it. I've needed J to pull more of the load; our usually very equitable load; because I've been pushed and pulled and have had many late nights. And J, if I ask, will do what I need, and he'll do it willingly and without question. But it goes back to the asking.

And so my thoughts return to empathy. I think, for me, various forms feed me in various situations. but sometimes the practical kind; while requiring more of another, means the most to the person in need.

Empathy, in greek, means to suffer with. And sometimes suffering with means getting your hands dirty. I mentioned in an earlier post that I'd re-awakened something - and I think this something has to do with practical empathy. To suffer alongside another - sitting cold on a curb, sharing your food, carrying someone's belongings or helping them walk.

All we can do is remain aware, and allow ourselves to bend into uncomfortable positions in an effort to allow someone else a bit more comfort. While simultaneously allowing others to be make you more comfortable too.


Rory said...

Meaningful and thought-provoking questions here, Jen.

Empathy is a powerful thing. It is often confused with sympathy and support, but it is a much more forceful emotion than either of these.

Thanks for bringing it to our attention and musing on it.

Z said...

Oh yes, Jen, as so often, you put what we feel into words that resonate with us all.

QT said...

Good thoughts to get out into the fresh air, Ms. Jen. I am usually considered a pushy bitch because I tend to ask rather than wait.

Speaking of Greeks, have you ever read Lucretius? He specifically addresses this, and one of my favorite entries is something along the lines of "not that men's misery brings us delight, but to see what ills we are spared is sweet"

I think (outside of our personal realm), sometimes tragic events serve to merely awaken a sense of thankfulness that we are not involved. And a lot of people don't get beyond that phase.

There is expsoure to emotional pain that comes with empathizing that I don't think many are capable of on a scale like what you do every day.

KC said...

I equate empathy with healing. Unfortunately, I don't think it comes naturally to all people, and certainly not all physicians.

That's one thing I'm trying to get the med students to develop. Walking in someone's shoes. And helping to heal through that empathetic connection, beyond the physical.

I know what you mean about asking for help. I've become better about asking for it when I need it, but not always.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Thought provoking. Inspiring. Thank you.

I think that funnybugger is characteristic of many of us.

Andrea said...

I know what you mean. I want people to offer help. I have a terrible time asking for it.

I wonder if it's more common to people in helper/social justice professions--we're the ones who help *other people.* It's an inversion of our chosen role to be on the other end.

Mrs. Chicky said...

Once again I must demand that you get out of my head. It's already too crowded in there already, what with the voices and different personalities. Asking for help = weakness. Yes, I know that well. I can't offer you more than mental support, since the miles divide us, but know that I am with you in spirit.

Juliness said...

Powerful post, my friend.

Once again, you have beautifully encapsulated a concept I hold close and struggle daily to *get.* Yes, it IS about the asking. If I can speak to a need in others without them having to verbalize a request, the act becomes healing for us both...and vice versa.

If empathy can flow through the internet, I'd wager you've got plenty headed your way.

Mad Hatter said...

Wow. Lovely. Like you, I get pigheaded about asking for support. I have a real, "leave me alone, I can do this by myself" chip on my shoulder and then I get cranky when the ones I love don't naturally notice that I am sinking. It's amazing anyone puts up with me, really.

My husband doesn't have an empathetic bone in his body and I am not saying that to be mean. He just doesn't. Wasn't born that way. I have come to accept this (mostly) and I have learned to ask for help without histrionics (mostly).

And yet, my husband is one of the most socially-minded people I know. He lives his life in a way that makes this world a better place. Funny that.

BTW, this post is so freakishly well-written, it is scary.

meno said...


I am trying to learn to ask for help, rather than hide in my resentment. But oh, it is hard.

But it is a leways a relief when i finally do.

Anonymous said...

I agree, asking for help is the hardest thing to do, and what's so sad, is that most people would jump at the chance to help us out, if asked. But there is the chance of rejection, that big ugly monster.

As for men, they're aren't like women, they don't notice as a rule. I have a husband who doesn't notice and would do anything I ask of him but I resent having to ask. I guess it's my problem but it sure would be nice to have someone who can see that you're struggling and then just offer to help.

If my husband did that, paid attention, and responded I would feel more cared for, more cherished. That's the thing about empathy, you see someone struggle and without asking, you help them and they are allowed to maintain their dignity but they feel better as well. Does that make any sense?

Thailand Gal said...

One of the hardest lessons I ever learned is that no one is a mind reader. Truly, no one has any way of knowing what I need or want if I don't say so. Unspoken expectations equal planned resentments. I hope you will feel free to ask those around you for what you need or want.



Deezee said...

I have always struggled with the asking (but not with 'being asked'.)

Recently I had an experience that revealed to me that my fierce independence was on par with keeping others at bay, with not letting them in. People want to be needed, and one of the best ways to let friends/lovers/etc. feel important is to ask them to help us, to allow them our vulnerability in the asking.

I'm in the baby steps phase of this practice...and it does take practice and it's REALLY HARD. But I try to remind myself of how good I feel when friends feel safe enough with me to ask for my help. I want to return the favor.

(btw, I've been AWOL a bit, but I must say, I think you have graduated beyond a blog and deserve a regular column in a newspaper about the issues you face/observe/digest at work. And I'm serious.)

flo said...

hi jen,

very insightful - as a guy, i've often experienced the other side of this story - first with my mother, then with girlfriends. perhaps guys aren't neurologically hardwired to think and perceive in this way as easily as women do.

remember that guys evolved sneaking around in the bushes hunting game, and that their communication focused a lot on grunts, waggling of eyebrows and gesturing. talk served to brag about our prowess in this arena, or to praise others for theirs. women evolved in a more social environment, where their ability to anticipate their child's unspoken needs, help each other, and navigate the intricate social web of the camp while the men were out held definite evolutionary advantage.

while our postmodern programming demands of us to be more gender-flexible and more sensitive communicators, i feel that perhaps our pleistocene subroutines are sometimes just baffled by the complexity of it all.

so often, i've wandered into a room where a woman is silently seething with anger, and the guilt trip wafts like a tsunami through the ether. and i've just wondered - "huh..? something's off, but what.....?" asking then often results in an even more sullen response...and this i've experienced with several women in my life.

from a different angle however - this is something a healer friend has pointed out to me, and i resonate with this view:

to spontaneously offer one's help without invitation can be a very presumptuous thing - it can involve a projection of one's own perceptions of another's weaknesses or insecurities.

i guess what i'm saying is that it's useful to examine one's own motives for wanting to help others.

what role does one assume by doing this? what role does one relegate to the recipient of one's generosity?

a middle way here may be to state that one is willing to offer one's help - provided that it is requested.

i have been on the receiving end of spontaneous empathy, and it has often felt wonderful - but not always.

i sometimes feel that others just don't get where i'm at, but this just reminds me that most of us are not yet telepathic.

the suffering that is so immediate to me, which colours my entire perception of reality, can be completely obscure to anyone beyond the confines of my skull unless i actively express it.

ok, so please don't feel that this is a grumble or a wagging of fingers - i empathise with you, and i appreciate your post - it puts many experiences in my life into a new and more meaningful perspective.



Julie Pippert said...

Oh WOW, this is a fabulous topic, and you have done such a thorough, thought-provoking and moving exploration of it.

I can really identify with eveyrthign you said.

My greatest struggle has been with reaching out, and allowing others to reach out to me.

On the matter of others reaching out to me...for many reasons, I developed into a very independent (too much so maybe) person who expected I could always do it all, myself. To be a Good person meant being competent, self-sufficient, always pulled together. Help was nice, but unecessary. Parenting yanks that rug out fast.

On the matter of reaching out to others...I find myself historically very willing to step out and help. My past is riddled with times I saw a need, and stepped up with offers to help. I found, too often, that my stepping up was met with not just resistance, but offense. Oh the stories I could tell. A friendship that ended because I brought chicken soup to a sick friend. And more. I learned to step back. So now I struggle with when and how and how much to reach out.

I also struggle with boundaries (probably because this is an evolving skill): helping without stepping on toes, knowing when to ask or offer, how far to go with assistance, etc.

Sometimes I snap with guilt because I was wrapped up either in my own personal goings-on and didn't offer help, or was too wrapped up in my angst about whether I ought to offer...and didn't step up to be there when someone needed.

So I think I'm still reaching towards the middle. Sometimes I wait to be asked when someone wants an offer, and sometimes I offer when someone wants to wait to's a challenge for me.

Like I said, though, this parenting gig is such an equalizer.

Hel said...

You rock my world.

How well I know this feeling of wanting someone to sense what I'm feeling and respond with what I need.

I often discuss this with my boyfriend and although I understand that he gets confused and angry when I "suddenly" turn on him there are times when I am simply not able to ask for understanding.

What I need is for someone to be there for me without me having to ask for it. Usually because the thing I need is something so small that I feel a bit childish asking for it.

I understand that sometimes we need to be able to ask but in some cases the empathetic gesture heals on a level where language does not exist.

I'm lucky. Because we have managed to talk about this my boyfriend sometimes scratches my head or washes the dishes without a word being spoken.

Julie Pippert said...

Flo, what wonderful insightful comments.

You've struck it exactly, the dilemma I face.

I have grown to become *mindful* of asking or offering, particularly of offering.

I have also come to understand I need to offer not just when someone else needs it and what they need...not what I want, and not with conditions.

I think what I work towards and your main point is that it must preserve dignity, and be full of respect.

Well said here:

to spontaneously offer one's help without invitation can be a very presumptuous thing - it can involve a projection of one's own perceptions of another's weaknesses or insecurities.

i guess what i'm saying is that it's useful to examine one's own motives for wanting to help others.

what role does one assume by doing this? what role does one relegate to the recipient of one's generosity?

a middle way here may be to state that one is willing to offer one's help - provided that it is requested.

Bob said...

One of the harder lessens I have learned about being married is to not expect my wife to know my every need. I too resented having to ask, thinking that if she really knew me and really cared she would anticipate my needs. It took me a long time to learn that these expectations were unrealistic and unfair - and selfish. So now I tell her and we discuss it if necessary. I am learning to be responsible for my own happiness. This has also (I think!) helped me be a better husband to my wife. I try to be more aware of her needs knowing how I feel about mine.

caveat: this isn't to excuse the self-centered spouse who is continually ignorant of the other's needs. I guess what I am trying to say is that regardless if you expect your loved one to pick up on your problems without being told, if you are hurting or in need let your spouse know. Why continue being upset - and in need - when all you have to do is ask? If you are always having to ask, well, that is a horse of another color. And a sign of deeper problems in your relationship.

Thailand Gal said...

Flo, great comments! Maybe I have more "male" energy than "female"... but I will admit to being one who really has a hard time with someone *hinting* about what he or she might want. I won't pick it up. That's a guarantee.

It is a wonderful thing to have someone come right out and ask for what he or she wants. It's refreshing.. and we both benefit from it since chances are very remote that I would say "no". I get the opportunity to help and the person who asks gets his or her need met.

I don't usually ask for help because I am not surrounded by people who would be receptive to that. It is something I intend to change and begin to draw people who are more reciprocal.. but, for now.. what is, is.. and all I know for certain is that being direct in a kind way is the only thing that works.



ewe are here said...

I know exactly what you mean about asking for help. It's sooo incredibly hard. I hate having to ask, so I often won't. And if I do, I find myself apologizing repeatedly for asking. And I ask feel I shouldn't have to ask at so many levels; it should be obvious, especially to those closest to me.

A remarkable post. I'll bet a lot of people feel this way, but the way you've described it... just nails it.

nomotherearth said...

I'm exactly with you that having to ask for help devalues the help (no matter what spirit the help was given in). It's a problem that Mr Earth and I encounter a lot, actually. He would do anything I ask, but I want him to offer without having to ask. It's a conundrum.

carrie said...

I love this. I think one of the most interesting things about empathy is also the different forms it takes -- from the different people who show it in different ways. You'll have people who take charge and get a physically demanding task done in time of need, or those to sit quietly and offer support on a more emotional level. Whether the problem is big or small, a little empathy goes a loooong way.

On a more personal note, I struggle with "asking" for help too, especially when I need it most. I wish there was a way to ask without asking....


Lillithmother said...

Jen, I'm too scatter-brained to respond anywhere near intelligently to your recent posts about your heartfelt work and how it constantly morphs and challenges you.

I just wanted you to know that I'm here, and reading...and cheering you on sister!

Love, Lil xo

Beck said...

Powerful post.
I don't underestimate simply being compassionate about someone's suffering, though - often, feeling alone can compound whatever is going on. I think that I too often take the lazy route out, though, and don't do what's needed that I could do for other people.

urban-urchin said...

Boy, you put that a lot more nicely than I would have - my post would have involved a lot of swear words, whining and pointing fingers at B.

I find I never want sympathy, but I need empathy. Everyone does.

wordgirl said...

I equate asking for help with weakness, too. What makes it worse, I think, is being an oldest child.

Em said...

What a wonderful and thought provoking post. I often think I "just" want to be heard and understood, but when people do that extra "something" it means the world to me. I also believe in "passing it on" - I received a lot of empathy (and help) from people when my children were babies, now I like to provide empathy and practical support to people just starting the parenting journey.

Jenny said...

Amen sister. Empathy (with action) is the greatest power on earth.

metro mama said...

I do think many people will not ask for help. The best thing we can do is just jump in there and help anyway.

bubandpie said...

Not having to ask is a big deal for my mother, too - though in her case that's not so much about not asking for help as not having to ask for my dad to be affectionate, attentive, etc. What she really wants is for him to want to do these things of his own accord, so asking would be kind of useless - asking would actually make it impossible for him to give her what she needs.

It's a logical position, but for some reason I don't share it. Maybe I trust that hubby and I DO want to spend time together, but there are just a lot of things that get in the way, so sometimes it's up to one or the other of us to make an issue out of it.

kristen said...

Your words here are so insightful, so beautifully constructed and heartfelt, you truly have a gift Jen. Everyday I read here, you stop me in my tracks. You make me think and want to be a better person.
The asking is the hard part, because in asking it hasn't gotten to resentment or holding a grudge.....once again I learn from you dear heart.

crazymumma said...

I know that sometimes I do not want to ask because I feel like someone (ummmm, the people I live with mainly)should just read my mind. Then I get bitter when my mind is not read.
This post gives me many things to think about.

Penny said...

I really loved this post. And, you've given me a lot to think about.

I love your best gift ever.

You make me want to help. Without the asking. Without the pressure.

I think you do that for a lot of us.

Ponygirl said...

I got your comment on my page and stayed choked up as I ready post after post on your site. If you have spent any time in the Tenderloin you probably know a part of me: my brother. If you don't know him personally, you know him in the faces of hundreds of people who sleep in your shelter every night. People whose beat-down sadness has led them into a world of escape and survival. He's sober now, and has just got his cab license! He called me today to tell me he got a job and say "Hi, my name's Kevin. Where can I take you?" That's his quote-unquote pick-up line. I love that guy. Write me at tesollars at the hot mail dot com.

kim said...

Beautiful post. I love your practical empathy. I'm trying to find ways to be more practical in my empathy. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by need.

ecm said...

Great post...I've had a week a bit like this in that I've had great empathy for kids in really hard situations, but sometimes the way to very unclear. I just stumble through, trying my best.

Joker The Lurcher said...

brilliant post and a wonderful conversation in the comments.

i am one of nature's rescuers and i have to work really hard to avoid automatically rushing into rescuing people when they may not want to be rescued. when i am in rescuing mode i think my motives are a desire to be needed and appreciated, more than just altruism.

years ago i read a bit by kahlil gibran which resonated with me:

"Surely the fruit cannot say to the root, "Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance."

For to the fruit giving is a need, as receiving is a need to the root."

to me this means that you cannot have a root without a fruit and vice versa. at various times in our lives we are roots, ie we need to take, and other times, when we have something to give we are fruits. if a person has something to give there needs to be someone willing to receive otherwise the giver cannot give.

so to me there is a sort of balance in it all - i give a lot and then i feel able to take at times to allow others to give. it is not always the person who i gave to who gives back but i reckon it all evens itself out in the scheme of things.

this need to sometimes take was brought home to me when i snapped my achilles tendon doing taekwondo. i suddenly had to ask for help and it was a tough lesson. but i learnt that the people helping me really gained from it too. in a way by being so independant i had been placing myself in a different zone to them, as somehow less needy.

so i suppose what i am saying is you have to be willing to take in order to be equal with the people round you. and you have to ask, otherwise you are simply receiving a gift rather than taking. not sure if any of this makes sense! take good care of yourself.