If we agree that empathy is, as Webster says “the imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another,” or, in plain terms, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, I trust we also agree that when taken to an extreme, empathy (or the vicarious experiencing of feelings or attitudes of another) can lead us to become so immersed in another’s suffering that we are in danger of losing our sense of self and consequently ignore the bounty around us.
That being said, as I sit in the warmth of a sun-filled day – a treat after many rainy days and nights of the past few months – I’m reminded of how easy it is to sink into feelings of despair when thinking about the world’s problems: the fires in northern California, the powerful earthquake in Indonesia, the growing numbers of deaths and homeless victims in Taiwan from typhoon Morakot, and the fear of a resurgence of Swine flu here in the States. Of course, there is also the continuing, unforgiving shedding of blood in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s never ending fight for its very existence.
Yet, because I am – at least for the moment – safe and protected, even while I empathize with all those who are suffering, I also know the limits of what I am able to do to alter their plight. I can send money to help them in this time of crisis. I can be as politically active as any citizen can be … but, beyond that, I know more than ever what I must not do and what the rest of us must not do. We must not lose hope and surrender to persistent feelings of dread and fear.
As a friend recently reminded me: a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
And, for me, it was sad enough to have been ever vigilant during the traumatic years of childhood and adolescence when my mother’s mental illness was the constant companion that caused me to feel as though I was always waiting for the next terrifying episode, never trusting that the good times or a good day would last, and fearing that doom was but a moment away.
That pattern was set in motion many years ago, and, even now, it remains all too familiar – the juxtaposition of external brightness with internal dread. Today’s sunshine, therefore, is not unlike those times in my childhood when the magnificent expanse of beach was so nearby, the ocean’s waves visible as they rolled with a hush onto shore, and, yet, the chaos inside our house still took center stage. I had to force myself to believe that I was safe, that the world was safe, and that I would survive. Somehow.
Although today I am fully aware of how easy it is to move out of the present and return to that past, I know now that a visceral appreciation of nature’s ultimate beauty and acts of human kindness do co-exist with times of natural upheavals and human cruelties.
Having survived early traumas does not translate to mean that I am not able to have empathy. Quite the contrary. Having known the darkest of days, I have also stored blessings in my memory bank. Just as I treasured the days when our lives were not in chaos, when peace and sunshine belonged to me as it did to everyone else; so, too, despite the photos we see in our daily newspapers and the shocking images shown and re-shown on television’s nightly programs, I refuse to remain without hope, even while I empathize with and fear for all who are suffering.
With years of therapy behind me (both as a patient and as a psychotherapist), I know that the goal – if we are to be fully human and loving – is to hold onto our ability to remain empathic, but not at the expense of our own well-being.
While I may not, one day, be able to defend myself from events beyond my control, that is precisely why I am now determined to remain in the moment – allowing the warmth of the sun as it is setting to offer me comfort and the pale blues and pinks that are painting their way across the sky to fill me with their gentle beauty. I choose not to permit my empathy to deny me the pleasures of such safety and warmth when they are mine to have.
At least not today.
I hope that you, too, are able to enjoy whatever pleasures are yours in this moment, and I wish you all a good week.