On Suffering and Empathy
As a society and culture, we have a distinct aversion to sitting with pain. Suffering is a common experience, and yet we react to it in peculiar ways. No one wants it. No one knows what to do with it. And talking about it makes everyone uncomfortable. I am all for the power of positivity, but I’m also for radical acceptance.
Have you ever had the experience where someone shared something difficult with you, and you had no idea how to respond? Maybe you blanked or said something you later regretted. Perhaps the tendency to want to “fix it” immediately kicked in because you recognized their pain but your feelings of helplessness were too overwhelming. Maybe you tried to change the subject or figure out the quickest way to help them “get over it” and “move on”? Maybe you launched into the virtues of forgiveness before you really had a grasp on what was being expressed.
Here’s the thing, empathy requires a kind of vulnerability that only comes from courage. Pity is often easy to recognize with its air of condescension, nauseatingly useless but for the stroking of the ego of the one who offers it. Sympathy is a bit harder because it often masquerades as empathy and is only recognized once you're in the throes of a vulnerability hangover. Empathy, though? Empathy connects at a gut level and links shared human experience.
When you share your pain with someone and at the end of the conversation, you feel lighter and less burdened—that’s empathy. When you feel seen, heard, and reasonably understood, without judgement—that’s empathy. When you feel less alone in your suffering—that’s empathy.
We recognize empathy when it’s the room. But we don’t always know how to get it there. It’s possible to learn how to be empathic. It requires connecting on an emotional level. You may not have experienced the exact same situation, but you can locate within your own experience a time when you felt the same emotions (even if the circumstances were different).
An important caveat here is to connect emotionally without hijacking the conversation and making the conversation about you. More often than not, you don't have to share the details of your personal experience or how you managed it. Stay with the experience of the person you are empathizing with. Keep in mind that, despite your best intentions, you don't know what they are going through. You can't know. Because you aren't them. And that's OK.
Moreover, just because someone is going through something similar to what you went through, it does not mean that their emotional response will be the same. Don’t make assumptions about how people may or may not respond to a given circumstance. This, too, is empathy. It avoids assumption and engages the here and now experience.
I believe empathy is often developed in sitting with and processing our own pain and suffering. Going through hard times won't ensure that we develop empathy. It develops only if we make space and allow it to grow within us. Only if we make room for our own healing. Otherwise, the wounds that aren’t tended to turn septic in our soul, multiplying suffering, infecting those who cross our path. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger by default. It only makes you stronger if you let it.
Wisdom is borne of experience, but only if we let it. And by letting it, I mean that we feel, hear, touch, taste, pause, examine and take time to meet our own suffering with self-compassion. Reflecting upon it through the lens of radical acceptance, we begin to heal, slowly but surely. We find within our pain a deepening of wisdom, an impartation of grace, and an expansion of empathy.