Is someone out there teaching empathy? Some days it seems like there is. They are even doing a good job in my opinion.
Over the past few months I have been feeling grief to a degree that shocks me at times. It has actually reminded me of a heart attack I had four years ago. Back then I had experienced an annoying cough for a couple of days. It seemed to flare up whenever I’d walk briskly, horse around with some young friends, or ride my bike. I didn’t feel particularly tired. In fact, I felt restless whenever I sat down or tried to sleep. Then, one morning at 6 AM, already dressed for my 15 mile morning ride, I felt a horse kick me in the chest. I thought, “Wow! So this is what it is like. Holy crap!”
I had no idea that it was like this when my dad had over 30 heart attacks when I was a child and teen. Back then I was sad that he was sick and that I might lose my dad. But I can’t say I could empathize. Not really. There have been a couple of times in the past few decades when I described a pain as an “eight” or a “nine” on a ten-point scale. My heart attack, however, was a completely new “ten.” On those older scales it would be a “25” out of ten.
Since my husband of 31 years died in December, I have felt a different kick in the chest. Still in the heart, but no heart attack this time. This pain has me sobbing at stop lights while driving and feeling weak when I catch myself using present tense verbs and plural pronouns which are no longer accurate. This pain prompts a flight into rage when I don’t stay on top of the feelings associated with really careless healthcare systems during his last year of life.
But, almost on cue, there are people who have come forward and drawn me in when I feel most isolated. I have publicly appreciated one guy who comes in for a hug whenever he sees me struggling. He rarely says anything but “I gotcha.” Two other people become quiet and attentive when I am around them, showing a clear preference for anything I might share at this time. One of these nudges me with invitations to connect again and again. Another friend in Florida has experienced some losses of her own, yet keeps me in mind and offers sunshine. Still another does what she hates most: scheduling. She arranges a bunch of listeners to attend to my grief with me.
What I notice about these empathetic people is that they are not passive in their empathy, but neither are they pushy. They offer and stand with me. Even when I don’t feel like company, I want to be with them. When I feel alone in a crowd, I am comforted by their presence.
These qualities of empathy may be critical for community. When we feel most alone, someone comforts us by being present. We are in community. I am struck how different this understanding of community is from the myriad toolkits about community development.
Committees, task forces, proposals, regulations, reviewers, elections, codes, policies, referenda, agendas – these are useful tools, but they do not assure community development as much as community management. These tools can help us address different viewpoints and can even formalize the process of sympathizing with different perspectives. But they do not move us to empathy, nor do they move us closer to one another.
Back then, when I asked the EMT who was treating me in the emergency vehicle if I was going to make it, he started by saying I could not get any more morphine or nitroglycerine because we had reached the limit. He went on to say he wanted me to make it, but could not predict the outcome. He then held my hand with one of his and cupped my head in the other. Though I can remember his face as well as my own, I do not remember his name. Still, I know he was completely with me.
Just as he was with Paul when he died.