Yep, two posts in one day! I've been thinking a lot about empathy lately. A lot of people don't have it. Most think that they do...but they don't. I probably think I have it a lot of times and sometimes I really just don't. Perhaps it is because we have a limited understanding of empathy. One of my job descriptions as a counselor is to guide others in the process of making sense of their pain. It requires empathy...a SKILL that one learns in grad school. Interesting huh? It's not necessarily a feeling...but a skill. This means that we all have hope...hope in that we can learn to be empathetic. Some people have a really difficult time understanding the difference between feeling with someone (empathy) and condoning what they are doing...Wow...it's like banging my head against the wall with some people trying to help them understand the difference. When we can understand it...it can make a world of difference.
I was sitting in the waiting room of the sheriff's department a while back waiting for fingerprints for a background check. An elderly woman walked up to the window and with a shaky voice asked if she could see her adult son who had apparently been arrested the previous night. The desk clerk said "No, he cannot receive visitors for 24 hours". The woman almost fell...and her friend (another elderly woman) reached out to steady her. She asked if she could send him a message...the clerk replied with a firm tone..."No, not for 24 hours." The woman began crying and saying "he's going to think that I don't care!". Clerk lady just stared at her with a cold expression...like she wanted to say "next!". I just watched...my heart breaking for the lady. Another lady was sitting behind me hardly able to contain herself while she waited to speak to an officer about a restraining order that she had filed against her brother who continually tried to break into her home looking for drugs she had stashed. She had young children and was scared out of her mind. Her fear presented as anger...the clerk spoke to her as if she was stupid and didn't really give her any hope. The clerk? I actually felt sorry for her. Had she had some empathy skills...she might not feel so overwhelmed with what apparently is a normal Monday morning at the sheriff's office. I was able to interact with the woman sitting behind me. I looked at her and said "are you okay?" She began telling me her story again. I said..."you sound really scared". She seemed to calm down. She said that she needed a cigarette. I said "why don't you go outside, grab a cigarette, and I will let you know if they call your name..." She said thanks...and ran outside. No, I didn't change the world...I really didn't do as much as I wanted to. But my heart just broke for these two women. The truth was the truth...the elderly woman couldn't see her son for 24 hours (which was later that night...though the clerk didn't see the need to tell her that...). The truth was that the restraining order was in process...but was slowed down because of the weekend. But, a little empathy could have gone a long way in creating a calmer atmosphere. I think sometimes we are afraid and/or uncomfortable with the other person's feelings...like we don't know what to say or do with them. The truth is that the other person doesn't need us to fix anything...they need us to listen. To make it okay that they are feeling what they are feeling. When we can relax...so can they.
What is your definition of empathy? Have you ever been showed true empathy?