Empathy and My Broken Collarbone
How do you really feel another person's pain?
My broken collarbone seems to be one of those gifts that just keeps on giving – at least in terms of spiritual lessons, in terms of opportunities for personal growth. The list is too long to enumerate here (which says something about me and the work I still need to do!) but I want to focus on one particular issue now: empathy.
In an interesting twist of fate (and certainly as an example of Divine Providence), my husband actually broke his collarbone three years ago, right around the same time of year. I know that because instead of offering sympathetic words and actions, I spent a lot of time complaining – “I have to schlep the tables and chairs into the sukkah myself” – and boasting – “I had to do everything alone this year.” Of course, in light of my own injury, I’m embarrassed at the self-centeredness of my response, at my limited perspective.
Empathy is very difficult since the reality is, it is actually impossible to really “feel” someone else’s pain. I’m reminded of a situation that took place in my hospital room many years ago. I don’t remember which child I was giving birth to but I do remember this incident. My husband was watching my contractions on the monitor. “They don’t look so bad,” he said to the nurse. She gave him a dirty look and didn’t speak to him throughout the rest of my labor. I won’t tell you what I said! But he really couldn’t know. He wasn’t experiencing it and he never would.
So what’s a hapless husband to do? Or a friend? Or an unsympathetic wife? How can we enter into someone else’s pain? How can we feel and express empathy? I’m not talking about saying the words – some clichés like “talk is cheap” may apply here. I’m talking about really entering into someone else’s world.
What should I have done with my husband and what do I want him (and perhaps others) to do with me now?
There is a famous story told about R. Aryeh Levine, affectionately know as “A Tzaddik in Our Time”. He once took his wife to the doctor and said, “My wife’s leg is hurting us.” This is held out as a model of marriage, of the oneness that was achieved. And it highlights the essence of what empathy is.
No matter how great the connection, he was not actually physically experiencing his wife's pain. That’s not what empathy means. But because he cared so deeply for her, because he identified so strongly with her, he was able to enter into her experience. He was able to emotionally feel her pain because she was so precious him and their beings were so intertwined.
The initial basis for empathy is caring and identification. Real empathy is limited to very few people because there are, in most of our lives, a very few individuals who we care so deeply about, whose lives we identify so strongly with. And conversely (and perhaps in a sobering reflection), there are very few who feel that way about us. It is usually limited to family members and a few close friends. And that’s if we’re very lucky. It helps if you’re the recipient to limit your expectations and if you’re the giver to focus on the love and connection.
Empathy also requires information. Like so many things in marriage and other relationships, we can’t expect our spouses or friends to be mind readers. I had a mini-meltdown over Sukkot fussing that my husband, who was doing so much for me, didn’t get me a present. Not because there was anything I particularly wanted. Not because there was anything I particularly needed (I wasn’t oblivious to the irony of Sukkot being the holiday where we recognize that all we need is the Almighty!) but because I was feeling lonely and vulnerable. I wanted him to think of me. Even though, as he wisely pointed out, all his other actions were a demonstration of that! I wanted my friends to think of me, but I ignored all offers of help and put on a brave front, so how could they? If I don’t let my husband or friends know how vulnerable I’m feeling, the loneliness even such a small injury can induce, how can I expect them to respond? In order to give and receive empathy, we need comprehensive information about the situation.
When my husband broke his collarbone and couldn’t drive, he hated the feeling of dependence. What’s the big deal? I thought. I’m offering to drive you, your children are offering to drive you, and there’s Uber or Lyft… And yet for him, the inability to drive himself was threatening and troubling. I think it made him feel old and helpless. I have no such qualms. I hate driving and am only too happy to have others do it for me. My challenge is to get myself back into a car. His was to keep himself out of one. Since we don’t all look at life the same way, empathy can be a challenge (witness the political atmosphere in this country) but not impossible.
The Mishnah importunes us to "carry the burden of your friend". We can ease someone else’s troubles; we can lift them slightly off their shoulders even if can’t totally shoulder it for them.
In order to do this, we need to bring our own emotional experiences to bear. Empathy is not a quality that can be expressed based on facts only. Just because I “know” you’re in pain, does not mean I can enter into your experience. As they say in the light bulb joke, first I have to want to enter into it. I have to want to lift out of myself and my needs and my concerns and my life to care about yours and then I must draw on my own emotions. How did I feel when…? How would I feel if…? What do I know about your emotional responses to situations? What you’ve told me, how you’ve reacted in the past. It’s not a science, it’s an art – and an imperfect one at that.
I don’t believe you can ever achieve complete empathy with another human being. However close we may be, we still have separate existences. But I do believe that with love and identification, with wisdom and information, and with emotional experience and understanding we can come very close.