“Empathy is not ‘I know how you feel,’ but ‘I don’t know how you feel.’”
I recently came across this quote in notes I’d kept from a retreat I attended some years ago. It was credited to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
If we care for people, we want to know how they are feeling. Making the effort to do so is a genuine act of compassion. Sometimes we make the connection easily. But sometimes our assumptions about what another person is feeling can lead us astray.
I remember an older woman I visited after she began attending our services. She always dressed more formally than was the norm in California and was always very gracious. When I came to her apartment, she invited me to have a seat in her living room. I noticed the many shelves which were carefully arranged with shiny porcelain figurines and elegant China dishes. It all suggested to me she’d probably led a proper and sheltered life. I asked her to tell me about herself. She talked briefly about her life before coming to Santa Barbara. Then she calmly described how her husband had recently died after ten years of dementia. She said for the first five years, she had cared for him by herself in the apartment, needing to be more and more vigilant as his condition deteriorated. When she could no longer keep him safely, she transferred him to a facility and visited him every day for five years until he died. I was stunned. Where do people find the strength for such devotion?
I once went on a mission trip with teenagers in Mexico. We’d build homes during the day and return to the campground at night. I had unconsciously brought with me an assumption – shared with many fellow parents of the time – that teens were becoming so obsessed with digital devices that they must be losing their ability to make genuine connections with others. But as I sat with them at night around the fire and they talked about their lives, I realized I had misjudged them; they were much better listeners than many adults.
I got to know a woman in her 30s who’d been wheelchair-bound her whole life. Once she said something that made me think of Christopher Reeves, the Superman actor who had become paralyzed after a horse-riding accident. “He must be an inspiration,” I said.
“Not really,” she said. “He’s rich and famous and can pay for 24-hour care and do what he wants. But most of us don’t have his resources. We experience a lot of loneliness and depression. But no one wants to hear that. People like him because he’s always positive. If he’s feeling down, he can’t talk about it, or he won’t be popular.”
How little we know about the inner life of others.
When I began my work at Hospice of Santa Barbara, I attended a workshop focused on caring for families in which the death of a child or parent had occurred. The speaker had worked for twenty years in hospitals dealing with such situations. I was hoping for some handy guidelines for such situations. I was surprised when he said what he does before he walks into a room to meet a family: “I get in touch with my helplessness.” That confused me at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is a way to set aside that anxious, earnest, “I-want-to -fix-it” impulse within us to become truly open to whatever is present.
And I remember being at a conference where a prominent nursing educator from the City of Hope was speaking about how easy it is to misjudge people. She said she had once led a support group for women who were dealing with breast cancer. Each person in the circle was taking a turn describing what emotions they were experiencing. All the women in the group talked openly about how hard it was, and many shed tears. One woman, however, seemed unmoved and opted not to share. The speaker confessed thinking, “This woman is probably repressing her feelings; I’ll speak to her after the session.” After the session was concluded and the others left, she approached the woman, who agreed to sit down and talk. The leader shared her concern that the woman was perhaps not being forthright and encouraged her to share. The woman told her what she’d experienced in the last three years. First, her family had lost their home in Hurricane Katrina and couldn’t go back. Then a daughter died. Then she’d lost her husband. “This?” she said, motioning towards her body, “This is just breast cancer.”
We never can assume we know what someone else is really feeling, or what it’s like to be “in their skin.”
A seminary teacher once made a reference to a painting that was probably in every Sunday School building in America: “Jesus Blesses The Little Children.” It’s very simple: Jesus is just sitting in the midst of a group of boys and girls. “You know,” the professor said, “People always assume that he is teaching them something. But maybe he’s just listening.”
Image: Portrait of a Peasant – Patience Escalier, Vincent van Gogh