A story away from empathy

I’ve been woken by a dream that has me up in the middle of the night hen-pecking out these thoughts on my laptop, my route to the couch only detoured via the bathroom for comfort and the kettle for a hot toddy to soothe a scratchy throat. My quiet companions are the sparkling Christmas tree – just another couple of days perhaps until we have to say goodbye – and the diffuser, offering me its fragrant mist of cleansing essential oils.
And the phrase that is playing in my head and heart, the phrase into which my dream thoughts crystallized, is this:

We are always only a story away from tapping into another hidden reservoir of empathy.

My dream story centred around an NGO called Borders without Boundaries that advocated for people who needed help gaining citizenship (I googled it and an existing organization actually offers pet rescue and adoption in Nebraska!). In the dream I was remembering my initial disconnect regarding their work – “Why are people so passionate about this issue? I don’t get it.” – which was soon followed by realizations about my own experiences of belonging and not belonging, and the ensuing empathy had led me to lend my own time and energy to their advocacy work. Apart from the (“though I say so myself” – my subconscious!) rather creative imaginary NGO, the scenario is a simple one to which I think many of us relate.
We are all so familiar with these experiences:

– What it feels like to NOT feel empathy, to NOT relate to someone else’s struggle or concerns
– What it feels like to break through into a new understanding of and connection to somebody’s struggle and concerns, and the resulting surge of “feeling with”

I expect most of us can relate, too, to the way that empathy can change our behaviour, leading us towards actions we couldn’t have imagined giving ourselves to before – loving actions on behalf of others, and actions that expand our own little worlds and hearts. I don’t know about you – and I expect we may all be somewhat different in this regard – but I very much dislike the feeling of not empathizing. [Note: I regularly do not empathize and am simply not conscious of it but rather just taken up with my own concerns; it’s the awareness of lack of empathy and how it feels that I dislike!] I don’t like witnessing others’ passion, struggle or pain and feeling cut off from them by my own lack of common experience. I often feel guilty or ashamed about this, as if I should be able to empathize with everyone and everything, though I have learnt that the guilt or shame response is usually remarkably unhelpful, only furthering the disconnect. I think what I liked about the simple story in this dream was how it mapped out the path that can be followed from lack of empathy to empathy, and from empathy to action. And as I pondered this path, lying in bed in the dark, it seemed to me that the crossroads on this path is always STORY.

My lived story and our shared story
In the dream, and often in my own real-life experience, the story that leads to an empathy breakthrough is a mixture of my own with the other’s. I have enough of an inkling of the other’s possible concerns to be able to relate them to my own, to my personal, lived history, and find a point of connection that widens my understanding and compassion. This happened yesterday over breakfast with a friend. As we ate and talked, I became aware of similarities between the realities of a relationship in my own life and one in hers, which in turn opened up new perspective, feeling and connection. We shared tea, toast, and moist eyes.

Empathy is a deep well. I became aware of this in a profound way during my spiritual direction training when, during a one-on-one supervision session, a mentor helped me dig beneath my experience of listening to someone and see how my own “graced history” (as we say in Ignatian parlance!) formed the backdrop of my ability to be with them and be present to their story. I was amazed and grateful to see how my own experience had created the empathy I was drawing on to be a compassionate, listening presence for someone else. And this is the wonderful truth: when we walk through our life’s own challenges and pains and receive the “grace” they have to offer, we have new resources at our disposal for ourselves and others. Though we are not always consciously aware of this well of personal history and empathy from which we are drawing – and that’s probably how it should be most of the time – the well is there, and it is deep, and it can flow into our lives and actions in powerful, healing ways.

Another’s story
Sometimes the connection with my own story is less obvious and the other’s story takes centre stage. What a privilege it is to be trusted with the gift of someone’s story in all its beauty, pain and difference from our own, and to be given a window onto another experience of being human. I sometimes wish I could recall all the weighty and simple stories I have heard over my lifetime; and yet I know that even those I can no longer remember form a tapestry of my understanding of the world, of life, of humanity, and of myself. Certain stories I will of course never forget because they belong to those close to me and have in some small or significant way also become my story. Other stories are indelible because hearing them changed me forever. I can clearly picture and feel the moment in our kitchen when I received the gift of a friend’s story of years of hiding and trying to change their sexual orientation, the anguish this caused, and the liberation and joy that were ushered in by a decision to embrace all of who they are. Although my perspective on sexual orientation had already shifted enough to be able to really hear and celebrate this story in the moment, hearing it still brought a whole new level of understanding, empathy, and connection, and generated an ongoing evolution of thinking and seeing. While the “coming out of the closet” story (or “being backstage until the right time to take the stage, revealing parts of one’s identity in different ways to different people,” to adopt an alternative metaphor being explored by queer friends) is not mine, in that moment in the kitchen it became forever personal. What could have been an anonymous “issue” had a face, a name, and a whole history of pain and joy that I couldn’t ignore.

Others’ stories, when they are entrusted to us, have the ability to change us if we will let them. It’s not always an easy process, but isn’t it miraculous to have at our fingertips this commonplace yet remarkable way of enlarging who we are, in order to become bigger human beings? It’s as if others’ stories excavate the well of our empathy, making it ever deeper, giving us more to draw on. Or, to return to my original metaphor, perhaps the next reservoir of empathy was always there hiding, waiting, and a story breaks through into it, making its source accessible to us.

My unheard story
There’s one more way in which I think it’s true that we are always “one story away from tapping into another hidden reservoir of empathy.” Sometimes our own story can feel like the wall that divides us from empathy rather than a conduit for it. Perhaps we just cannot find enough common ground to be able to understand and relate to the other, or any common ground at all, and our different stories feel divisive rather than connective. Or perhaps, amidst some understanding and connection, our different stories feel in conflict. Recently, for example, a friend was sharing a painful part of their story with me, and I became aware that despite the fact that I felt for her, it was triggering anger in me. I am working on becoming more comfortable with my anger but it is still not a pleasant experience for me, and I especially did not like the fact that in that moment I was not as able to be present to her story but was actually living and feeling my own story (though they overlapped, and there were ways in which my anger may have been more appropriate and helpful than I thought at the time). But what that moment put me in touch with was a pool of my own pain that needed my attention. However much I wanted to push it down, my anger insisted on springing up and, later, tears and memories, thoughts and realizations sprung up along with it. And here’s what I’m thinking: When this happens to us, when strong emotions and the story that fuels them rise unbidden, we have surely come face to face with the story that we need to listen to right now. Yes, we may put it aside for a while if circumstances don’t allow us to listen straight away (and if we WANT to listen to the other story at hand!), but we do well to make time and space to listen, feel and explore the story that has risen up inside us as soon as we can. Because I believe that, today, THIS is the story that will widen and deepen our well of empathy.

I suppose this is a relatively new thought for me. I’ve been more familiar with the idea of giving space for another’s story and allowing it to generate empathy, though often in connection with my own experience. The idea that I need to make space for and listen to my OWN untold, unheard story too – sometimes even prioritizing this over another’s story – and that this can also evoke greater empathy rather than just egoistic self-absorption, is still somewhat novel and surprising. But I believe it and have experienced it. I am also beginning to realize what happens when I don’t honour my own story and experience.

In a recent session of peer supervision, a fellow spiritual director and I explored a moment that had come to my awareness – of pain I had felt while listening to a directee’s story. I had definitely experienced empathy as I listened, but I could still recall this particular pain in my chest and how it (I realized as we explored) had an awkward, stuck quality about it. While empathy feels like a force that flows out towards the other, connecting us, perhaps even inviting us somewhere out beyond ourselves, this was a pain that made me hesitant about how to respond and turned me in on myself. I came to recognize that it was my own bottled-up and unfelt pain, and again it was asking to be noticed and given attention. Until I really hear this story and its pain carried in my body, it remains locked up and keeps parts of me locked up too. But what I am realizing, and find incredible, is that listening to and feeling and honouring my story – and its pains, joys and lessons – releases this inner backlog to become part of that deep well of empathy. The well of my tears can become a wellspring of life.

I hope that this transformation can be true, too, when what is triggered by another’s story feels like a blank wall of nothing – “I just cannot relate. I don’t even WANT to relate!” What I’m coming to see and believe is that there is a beautiful path of empathy – or a river, if you will – that we can follow at any moment and from any starting point if we want to, and it always involves listening to the story that is demanding to be told. So when I hit a brick wall of lack of empathy, I don’t need to judge and berate myself; in fact that would be entirely counter-productive. Instead, I can listen with curiosity to my own story as it informs my response to the other (there’s a reason for my lack of empathy and I need to honour it), and I can see where that leads me, whether it may open up a new insight or possibility, what glimmer of desire I might find for new understanding and compassion, and how it may lead me towards hearing the other stories I need to hear in order to stretch and enlarge me.

In these varied ways, what can feel like “the blockage to empathy” – what I can sometimes experience as my irritating, encroaching, distracting or unhelpful feelings and thoughts – are so often actually the conduit rather than the blockage, the path rather than the dead-end, if we will just stop and listen to the story they are telling.

Well, friends, it’s still dark outside but the first bird is singing and I can see tree limbs outlined black against a slightly lighter sky, and I am going to try to get a little more sleep now that I’ve processed the dream and these thoughts. My body is tired but my soul is reinvigorated to follow this path towards empathy, knowing more deeply that stories – yours and mine and ours – are the crossroads and the crux and the conduit. There is a flow and we can join it.
We are always only a story away from tapping into another hidden reservoir of empathy.
May we listen well.

2 thoughts on “A story away from empathy

  1. Rachael, this is a profoundly beautiful and stimulating essay. I thought I knew a lot about story and empathy but in reading your own process and words, I see I have much more to learn. Thank you for stretching and challenging me.

    1. Wow, that means a lot to me Joanna. Thank you so much for coming along on the journey with me and pondering it so deeply. <3

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