Having Empathy For Each Other

Empathy
.... The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.




I am reading the beautiful memoir, In Shock, by Dr Rana Awdish. It is her story of falling desperately ill and how the hospital treatment she received taught her to become a better doctor by developing empathy for patients. It's beautifully written and a powerful message.

However, I found myself bewildered at times by various things she struggled with. During her first surgery, she heard one of the doctors say, "We're losing her," and she was horrified and offended that they said it. Try as I might, I can't stir an understanding of why. If I heard those words, I would be terrified of course that I was dying, but I'd also know that someone recognised the situation, cared about it, and was determined to fight for my survival. Similarly, while Dr Adwish was disgusted that a doctor told his colleagues during morning rounds that "she's been trying to die on us," I personally would have have felt warmed by it. Rather than thinking the doctor was seeing me as an adversary, I'd have looked past his phrasing and felt seen, valued, and that the hospital staff were focussed on winning the battle to save me.

For a while I wondered if there was something defective in me that made me see caring where Dr Awdish saw inhumanity. But I reminded myself that empathy doesn't look or feel the same for everyone. My personal life history and the culture I live in makes me inclined to sense caring within blunt language and apparent detachment.

For example, when I was seventeen, I was in an accident that almost killed me, rendered me unconscious for days, and  left me looking severely wrecked. On my second morning of consciousness, awake but drifting in hazy half-dreams, I was roused by a doctor lightly kicking my bed. Some people were horrified to hear he did this. To me, alone and scared in a hospital room, confused, in pain, sure that I looked like a monster, his kicking the bed felt friendly. It felt like he understood my misery and was able to reassure me with one simple gesture that he wasn't worried about me, nor disturbed by how I looked.

I also know empathy and good manners present quite differently in other cultures. And as we understand more about neurodiversity, we are learning that some people experience empathy by different processes than we are typically used to. There's also the fact that how a person expresses themselves is not always indicative of how they feel. For example, a woman can be so highly empathic that she is overwhelmed and shuts down, thereby seeming disconnected and uncaring.

I actually believe empathy is overrated. We can't always understand what someone else is feeling, even if we want to. And it's just as easy to be good to someone even if you don't resonate with their emotions. I rate kindness above empathy. I also rate higher the simplicity of listening to each other. Tell me how you feel. I might not empathise, but I can have the decency to allow you your feelings and care for you in ways you actually find helpful. I can also tell you why I talk to you the way I do, how I feel, what I bring to the relationship, and I hope you will be willing to listen and value my perspective even if it's not what you yourself feel. Together we can communicate and come to harmony without having any empathy at all.

These thoughts about empathy were sparked by but aren't in response to Dr Awdish's book. It's a gripping recount, thought-provoking, gorgeously written, and I highly recommend it.



3 comments:

  1. it's a very interesting question for me, pondering whether kindness is more important than empathy... i do understand why you say this, and in some ways i agree: one shouldn't have to empathise with someone in order to wish them well and behave decently toward them. but it's kind of a chicken and egg question for me... does the ability (in however basic and limited a fashion) to feel/imagine what others are feeling evoke kindness, or does kindness (a willingness to be decent or beyond decent to others) evoke compassion? maybe both are operative; some people may not be very empathetic, but are kind by nature or by teaching, whilst others' kindness stems from their empathy? perhaps empathy is something inborn, like having brown eyes or a tendency to freckles, whilst kindness is something learned?

    any way it turns out, both empathy and kindness seem sorely lacking these days... too much media amplification of the ugliness, too few children reared with genuine connection, too much fear. which only points up the need for a no-empathy-required emphasis on kindness such as you describe.

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  2. I agree with you that kindness is more important than empathy. Kindness is not a feeling and should not be contingent upon whether one 'feels' for another or not, it is a moral obligation (although, we're not allowed to use the 'M' word anymore, are we?).

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