Empathy is the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us. Compassion is the willingness to be open to this process. –Brené Brown
Empathy has been on my mind lately. The transformative power of its presence and the thunderously quiet cloud of sorrow born from its absence.
The Atmosphere of Empathy
We notice empathy when it shows up; it lightens the darkest of hours and reminds us of our strength. When it doesn’t appear within reach, the dark feels endless and deeply isolating. We see empathy practiced—or not—everywhere when we look for it. And when we don’t happen to notice empathy? Well that’s often the moment for us to be practicing it.
Empathy appears finite these days. From culture and faith wars, economic strife in tension with economic wealth, and one ‘ism’ pushed up against another ‘ism,’ the atmosphere of compassion and empathy can feel thin when the days feel long, the truth feels on trial, and we’re all just trying to survive and take care of ourselves.
Since forever, we’ve been taught to put on our own oxygen mask first so we are more equipped to help those next to us in applying their own. But when oxygen and plain old truth feel like rare commodities, it sometimes feels like we’re grasping for our own mask and holding on tightly, choosing to breathe in deeply what we desire for our own survival while disregarding—consciously or not—if our neighbor might need some assistance to breathe deeply too.
While we are fumbling for those oxygen masks, attempting to make it through at all costs, we have forgotten that staying connected to each other is the true cornerstone of survival.
Empathy is the oxygen we’re all reaching for these days.
Survival in isolation isn’t survival; it’s more like just an extension of time. However, survival in connection to something or someone larger than ourselves is everything, often becoming the birthplace of our purpose. For example, those who survive life-changing moments frequently spend the rest of their lives advancing the work of that which helped them survive.
Despite how it may feel, empathy is not finite at all. It is endless and renews itself daily within us if we let it. Empathy is indeed a practice; a skill to be learned, shaped, and strengthened like any other talent. Above all, it requires making a compassionate choice; empathy does not proclaim its presence but rather awaits our daily action before stepping onstage and making itself known.
What Does Practicing Empathy Look Like?
Practicing empathy looks like making the choice to feel with someone in their given circumstance while looking them in the eye and loving them in the midst of their circumstance. This doesn’t mean loving from afar, mind you. This means loving alongside of.
There is no denying that putting on our own masks and taking care of ourselves is our inherent responsibility. But sometimes the ‘taking care of ourselves’ line is mistaken for only one’s self. However, no wise teacher nor any of the world’s wisdom traditions reference self-care without also mentioning the care and love of our neighbors, no matter their circumstance. In flight analogy terms, ‘taking care of ourselves’ simply means ‘my mask and so too your mask.’
Choosing to practice empathy is hard, particularly when our own survival seems most paramount or when we fear helping others will short-change ourselves. Sometimes the moments we cannot embrace the practice are the same moments in which we could benefit from empathy in return. Staying vigilant to our practice and our own experiences with empathy may be difficult but, as with most challenges, the practice will be life-giving too.
Everywhere we look, our culture is reaching for oxygen; we’ll find it in empathy.