Have you seen the movie, ‘Hunger Games’? This futuristic movie has a society divided into 12 districts with each member of the community examined for district fit, to live and perform according to the district classification. Though our society is not divided as such into these classification we do have people who are more suited to caring than others. In reality, we each have a degree of caring and empathy within us though we may not chose it as our profession.
Ask yourself the question, would I help someone unconditionally? Would I go out of my way to offer support to family and friends? Would I go to the aid and support of strangers if some event happened?
Recently there have been a spate of attacks on large groups round the world. In the last week in Melbourne, Australia, a deranged driver ploughed into people on a busy main street, indiscriminately aiming for anyone in his driving path. The outpouring of sorrow was palpable where the community came together to show support for the victims and their families. Flower tributes and a large gathering held in the main city square, allowed people to grieve at this unconscionable act. People experience gratitude during these difficult or life threatening circumstances and if something is at risk of disappearing its value increases.
This happened only a few days ago in a small community in Texas USA. A Muslim mosque, ‘The Vicroria Islamic Centre’ was burnt down. Members of the Jewish Community reached out to offer their Synagogue as a venue for prayers to the Muslim community and many others rallied in a fundraising campaign that has raised 900,000 USD to help rebuild the mosque. These examples are just some of many that happen when larger scale situations occur.
Empathy is a crucial social skill and what we call a social connection agent. It simply comes down to feeling something for another and responding to it.
Research in empathy describes three main concepts that relate to three different uses in brain circuitry:
- knowing what someone feels. Attributed to ‘the Theory of the Mind’ where you are able to see another person’s point of view but recognize that they have different feelings, thoughts and needs to yours.
- feeling the way another feels. Attributed to sympathy, ‘feeling along with’. This is especially true when it is attached to members of your own group or you have experienced something and then see the images in technicolour.
- feeling for that person. Attributed to compassion, the motivation to action, encouraging us to help others who are suffering. People are the main sources of all of our experiences, good and bad, therefore interaction and cooperation is a basic need of humans and a key to wellness. It makes us vulnerable when we really feel the other person’s situation then reach out to advance their well being. It is an active process of friendliness towards another.
Gilbert (2005) in Compassion. Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy states that when we give compassion it has an effect such as reinforcing the immune system, reducing fear and depression, increasing resilience and self awareness, improving one’s mood, leading to happiness and satisfaction that generates meaning into our lives.
When someone loses something, a child during pregnancy, someone from a fire, suicide, murder or cancer for example, saying ‘I know how you feel’ is empathetic but unless you have directly experienced this you are not being authentic and the other person knows this.
I have personally seen someone suffering, turn on another and angrily chastise them for having no personal experience and not knowing what it feels like. Being present and there for someone is a sign you care. A meal, a call, a visit, flowers are all visible signs of caring and feeling for them. Sending energy, thoughts of love through meditation and prayer is also practicing compassion with the hope that it may affect the final outcome and wellbeing of the person suffering.
Care-givers such as a social worker, doctor, teacher, therapist or healer need to be careful to not just care for the other person, but also for themself. Giving away all their energy to another is draining. Be aware of your needs and maybe give less abundantly and be wiser and more accomplished with how and what you give.
How do we give compassion and take responsibility for our own wellbeing as well as that of another? Buddha talks about two things Mudita – being able to see all the good in the world and appreciate it and Upekkha – being able to remain present without losing ourselves in the suffering. It can be performed through mediation practice, being silent, opening one’s heart and mind and remaining present.
Forgiveness however is not easy. It is very hard to see the good in another when you have recently lost someone at the hands of a perpetrator.
Self-compassion and self-love precedes compassion and are one of the first steps towards being empathetic. “Love your neighbor as yourself’ shows the authentic love towards others. It starts with loving yourself. You can only really take care of another when you are able to love yourself and not dwell on the negatives or what might have been different. Loving yourself is a healing process and leads to positive feelings and increased social and emotional growth.
Being grateful for what you have no matter how simple it is, opens your heart and makes you feel joyful giving you a connection to that essence. It helps you identify with your empathy towards self and others. Thankful people have better relationships and are more willing to do things for others.
Aristole knew that a blossoming life involves reflection. A gratitude diary is a great way to reflect on your holistic self. It needs to be done everyday for at least 30 days to reflect and observe what something or someone means to you in your life. Record at the end of each day, and write down 3 things you are grateful for. It can be as simple as your children, the yummy food you had eaten or the team you are working with for example.
Beside each good thing answer the following questions:
- Why did this good thing happen?
- What does this mean to me?
- How can I have more of this good thing in my life?
At the end of the 30 days re-read what you have written and be aware of the effects on yourself.
Eiizabeth Kuber- Ross once said ”the most beautiful people we know are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, know loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Too often we underestimate that even a small act of kindness has the potential for change. A touch, a smile, a listening ear or a compliment can make a difference. Count your blessings and reflect. There are many songs that showcase empathy. ‘Wind beneath my Wings’, sung by Bette Midler is such a powerful song that refers to a friend or family member who has stood by you, given you inspiration or encouraged you. You’re the motivation that makes that person wanna keep going
You’re the one who holds that person up when they feel they’re going to fall
You’re the one who keeps them holding on and never giving up
You give me reason to be
You’re the reason I have come so far
Without you, I never would have been able to spread my wings and fly.
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