I feel you, man.

Empathy has been defined as a multi-factor construct that results in an individual’s capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. In common expression, empathy allows us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. Empathy has been studied from many perspectives, including among others: positive psychology, neuropsychology, sociology, and theology. Recently, a variety of studies have used brain imaging to illustrate the activation of locations in the brain associated with the movements and feelings we witness in others. In short, when we empathize our brains resonate with the brains of those with whom we empathize. In some small ways we feel the pain of their injured arm, the joy in their laughter, the pride in their success. There are case studies about people with such extreme empathy that they cannot even eat a meal with others because their brains trigger too many physical sensations of such intensity that they cannot get their own forks to their mouths.

I have been particularly interested in understanding the relationship between empathy and action. Does empathy move us to action? Are feelings of empathy operating in a closed loop, so that they feel like action when nothing is actually being done? Do stronger feelings of empathy delay action? Are there some levels of empathy that increase the potential for action?

In the months since my husband has died, I have been struck by the common expressions we use when talking with the bereaved. While there are dozens of such expressions, a couple of these give me pause. One is, “I cannot even imagine what you are going through.” Another – one that I have so often used in the past – is, “If you need anything at all, just let me know.”

Before I explain my own reactions to these expressions, I must state that I also find them comforting and kind. The people who say them seem to be making statements that show their empathy for my situation. They are reminding me of our friendship and their commitment. However, I also hear in these statements that the speaker is limiting their empathy.

I cannot imagine what you are going through. Why not? What if your spouse died? Your child or life-long friend? What might you feel like then? That’s what I am feeling. When I hear this expression, in addition to their positive intent, I also wonder why I should shoulder both my pain and the pain they are not willing to even consider. I ask why I am the designated griever. I sometimes say, “Thanks. I also want to express my sympathy for your loss of your dear friend, my husband.”

Detail of mural by Paul Mandracchia

Detail of mural by Paul Mandracchia

Similarly, when I am offered with complete sincerity and generosity an opportunity to name my needs and wants with an expectation that they will be addressed (“If you need anything at all…”), I notice that I cannot imagine what those things would be. Recently I was told by one friend that he saw me as very self-sufficient. Another said that I was good at letting others know what I wanted. I don’t believe either of these opposites. Of course, it is possible that I lack self-awareness in these areas. It is similarly possible that some of my friends don’t empathize. Or maybe my character traits are more fluid in times of grief. Whatever the circumstance, I am keenly aware that in this period of grief I feel really inadequate to name my needs or communicate them. Friends who have interferred with their routines and mine, stepping up and in uninvited, seem to me to be particularly empathetic.

This capacity to understand another from that person’s own point of reference and to take action seems to be a critical ingredient in community. We can resonate with the experiences of others and take action. We see not only the danger in precarious traffic situations, but we also feel the fears of those involved. We both feel the loss of someone whose child has died and see their struggle to care for themselves. I am reminded about counseling a young woman years ago who experienced a brutal beating in front of many bystanders. She vividly recalled their inactivity. She imagined that they were smiling behind their impassive expressions. She described her sense of isolation that was so extreme that she might die in front of these strangers.

I wondered then, as I do now, if these bystanders were immobilized by their empathy, feeling her pain, fear, and extreme isolation to such a degree that they could not act. Or, was their empathy somehow impaired so they just did not or could not resonate with her experience? I wonder, too, how our love of the screens in our lives – our phones, tablets, and TVs – affects empathy, and thus affects community.

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