Empathy Bridges Differences
Guest Column by Amanda Guthrie
On the surface, my best friend, J, and I don’t have very much in common. We have a long history (we met when we were two years old!) but our interests have grown apart over the years. She spends her time listening to country music and cuddling with her husband and three dogs. She’s an accountant and an expert saver, already looking forward to purchasing her second home. She doesn’t believe in God and prefers not to talk about it. I, on the other hand, talk religion and politics as often as I have good conversation partners. I don’t listen to much music other than what’s played during my yoga class. And I’m constantly trying to save and failing at it. On top of all of that, at this point in our lives, we live an entire country apart.
No matter our differences, this woman remains my best friend, and I can’t imagine that will change any time soon. We share a history, but, more importantly, we empathize with one another in a way we haven’t been able to achieve with most of our other friends. J and I share a similar story. We both lost a parent when we were teenagers. My dad died when I was 16; her mom died two years later. We were still growing up when we lost our parents, and that impacted the ways we both continued to grow and make sense of the world around us.
Support and Understanding
In college we were hundreds of miles apart, but we were closer to one another than to any of the friends around us. We could call one another and not feel the need to say anything, one of us crying softly on the other end of the line. Each of us sitting on the curb outside our respective dorms, we wondered with each other about the big questions of life: “Why is there suffering?” “What’s the meaning of life?”
Most recently, we’ve cried together in person. Each a bridesmaid in the other’s wedding, we took time and made space to honor the huge hole in the ceremony where our parents were supposed to be. Mine, walking me down the aisle. Hers, helping her get ready on the big day.
There’s nothing quite like having a conversation with someone who can say, “I know,” who really does. There’s nothing like having someone say, “I’ve been there,” who really has. And, on the other hand, I think we all know what it feels like when someone says to us, “I know what you’re going through,” when they really don’t. It feels inauthentic and tends to create more distance between us than the closeness the person meant to encourage.
Empathizing with Each Other’s Pain and Happiness
Of course it’s never the case that we know exactly what another person is going through. Presumably, my sister and I should know exactly what it was like to lose our dad. But that’s simply not true. She and I have very different experiences of that loss.
Nevertheless, it is the case, I think, that we often know a piece of one another’s stories. Each of us will inevitably have our own unique perspective when walking through what, from the outside, may appear to be a very similar situation to another. But, as long as we can maintain humility, it is possible for us to say, “I don’t know exactly what you’re going through. But I know a piece of this story.”
Each of us knows what it’s like to experience loss and heartache, suffering and, even, joy. And because we have that knowledge – because we can empathize with pieces of one another’s stories – we can partner together in life. Because we know a piece of one another’s stories, none of us has to face what’s hard or seemingly impossibly or even wholly joy-filled, alone.
Helping Others with Empathy
I hope the conversations I have and the groups I lead for adults with mental illness in an acute hospital setting are helpful. When I worked in in-patient detox, I hoped for the same. But I know from conversations with patients and from the literature, that often what is most helpful are the relationships patients build with one another. There is nothing quite like another patient saying, “I’ve been there and here’s what helped.” Or, “I know you’re in a tough spot right now. I’ve been there too.” They know a piece of one another’s stories more intimately than do most other people in their lives. This allows them to become guides for one another along the way.
It’s an amazing privilege to watch patients I work with connect with one another in this way. Intuitively they seem to know that, while they might share much in common, their stories are not exactly the same. They become curious about one another and ask to hear more of the story, to try to understand one another better. This allows for each person to be truly seen as the unique person they are and, at the same time, held in community by those who know something of what this person is experiencing.
Treating Each Other As We Would Be Treated
By seeing and remaining curious about another while maintaining connection and commonality, I believe that we treat one another as we would wish to be treated. We love as we would love ourselves. Every major religion, it seems, encourages this practice. (A list of these directives that is worth checking out can be found here.) It’s often referred to as “the golden rule.” There is something truly golden, or special, about empathizing with others and, by finding what is held in common, moving forward together, rather than alone. Instead of allowing a person to get stuck, two or more people, acting out of empathy, can work together for change and transformation.
Arthur Ciaramicoli, licenced clinical psychologist and author, writes, “When we give and receive empathy, transformation occurs.” He continues, “We learn to become more empathic when we slow down, become present, and are fully committed to understanding a person’s uniqueness.” (From his book The Stress Solution).
I am so grateful for the people in my life, like J, who know and understand me, who see and love me. She and others encourage me to grow and change, taking what has been challenging in my life and transforming it into beauty and purpose. I hope the same can be true for all those who find themselves stuck and alone.
This hope is echoed in the closing lines of “A Friendship Blessing” by John O’Donohue: “May you never be isolated. May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your soul friend.” May it be so for you and for each of us.
In faith and fondness,