Empathy is the most powerful force for interpersonal healing and growth within our human existence. It is stronger than the many forces (fear, ignorance, selfishness, etc.) that contribute to relational brokenness and destruction because such forces are completely dependent on its absence; in the presence of empathy they lose their power to overwhelm and conquer us. When we perceive one another as completely “other” in relation to ourselves, from the detached and removed vantage point of our own isolated and self-contained experiential frameworks, we fear each other. An ignorance of our essential, shared human nature and grounding interconnectedness creates a hostile and adversarial dynamic, imprisoning us within exclusive and obsessive concerns for our own individual needs and desires. I cannot see you or acknowledge your unique experiential world because I have locked myself into a mirrored cage in which all I am able to see is my own image reflected back at me. I cannot “walk a mile in your shoes” because I have tied the laces on my own shoes too tightly and am unwilling to take them off.
However, everything changes in the empathic moment and encounter, when a decision is made to leave the apparent but ultimately false safety of one’s own experiential world, with its limiting assumptions, perspectives, values, and beliefs, and venture into the unknown expanse of another person’s experience. This is, inevitably, and to some significant extent, “foreign territory” so to speak; we have crossed over the boundary separating our experiential country from that of another and are now in a new and uniquely different experiential country with its own distinctive landscape and terrain.
The core work of empathy lies in acquainting and familiarizing ourselves with this terrain, this particular person’s thought processes, belief/value perspectives, behavioral response patterns, life narratives and meaning symbols. As novices within another’s personal universe we initially begin as “strangers” to what we encounter, in so far as we cannot legitimately claim to immediately and completely understand its native contours and foundational structures. We are by definition interpersonal explorers and must proceed with a profound humility, respecting and honoring what we “discover,” rather than arrogantly and presumptuously planting our own flag in another’s experiential soil, claiming it as our own.
This is why the empathic process is inescapably a dynamic movement of courage, risk, and self-sacrifice, and also, therefore, why it can often be so very difficult. It is challenging, at times perhaps even excruciating, to dare to venture beyond the borders of our own experiential frameworks in a genuine attempt to understand that of another. Such an attempt demands a temporary abandonment of our biased perspectives and ways of living life to honestly confront and consider those of another person. To some extent, we must willingly sacrifice our exclusive identifications with our own cherished modes of existence and ways of being in our worlds, which in turn means risking that following the empathic encounter they may need to be fundamentally changed and altered.
The work of empathy requires a courage that is often too exacting, which I believe accounts in large part for its marked absence within our relational interactions. Even when we recognize the need and desire to act empathically there is usually some part of us that hesitates or outright refuses to leave the comfortable and familiar structure of our own experiential worlds. We are used, and have become quite attached, to our personal ways of thinking, perceiving, believing, valuing, and responding, and venturing beyond them is simply too threatening, anxiety-provoking, or painful.
If we then more specifically consider what it means to empathize with a person’s emotional pain and suffering the necessity of courage is undeniably and glaringly evident. Personal experience and observation have shown me that in our society and culture people in emotional pain are often treated as if they have a contagious disease; others don’t want to “catch” what they have (be exposed to such pain themselves and “hurt” with the sufferer) and so avoid, ignore, or banish hurting individuals to suffer in silence.
I would suggest that what we most need when faced with pain and suffering is for someone to empathize with our experience, that is, to enter into, try to understand, and support us within, it. We need others to help us bear our suffering, to endure and survive it, but ultimately and ideally to experience it as a meaningful source of growth and healing. We certainly cannot do this by separating ourselves from people in suffering, and sympathy (“feeling for”) in itself cannot accomplish this either, for to merely feel for a person is still to remain at a safe emotional distance, removed and protected from direct experiential contact. The only way to offer a suffering person this remarkable and invaluable gift is through real empathy, in which we “feel with” the person, directly participating in and experiencing his or her pain.
The greatest and most beautiful gift I have ever been given is the miracle of empathic presence, in which others have entered into my experiential world, genuinely trying to understand it, and thus affirming, validating, and supportively caring for it. The most valuable and meaningful interpersonal experiences in my life have been when someone truly empathized with me, especially when these involved deep pain and suffering. Conversely, relatively meaningless or emotionally damaging interpersonal experiences in my life have been when others have misunderstood, dishonored, or attacked my experiential world. While the latter have destroyed me the former have, in the truest and most real sense, saved me. An act of empathy may seem like such a small and at times inconsequential thing, but I encourage you to consider that it is in fact everything, and that ultimately nothing else we do, interpersonally, really matters if we do not empathically relate to one another. The foundations of our human world and existence rest on the dynamic of empathy and entirely on its basis they either stand or fall; its absence will destroy us all and only its presence will save us.
— Scott Kiser