empathy

Finding Ourselves in Loss

What do we say when there is a tragedy, a death, something really bad happens to people we care about? 

Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

When I was younger I would try to draw on my capacity for empathy, but I had a fairly dry aquifer of emotional intelligence. Life, death, disease, and unexpected mishaps were frankly just part of the hand you were dealt. Our feline life expectancy dropped a year or two each chapter of our experience until we accept we have one life to live and it is very short.

As we mature and age we are exposed to more suffering, more tragedy, more death. It is a jolting reminder of our mortality and the mortality of the ones around us. We feel more compelled to express our sympathies and condolences. To offer support to the survivors. We struggle with doing the right thing at the right time. We write notes, emails, sign cards, and say things to comfort family and friends. Sometimes we rely on Hallmark for the words, say or write the same thing we always say, or we do nothing. At least for me,  it is an awkward process.

What can I say? What should I say? What can I do? What should I do?

I have learned so much being the recipient of these communications. Nothing like learning about yourself by how you are treated.

The golden rule always applies. Say/do unto others as you would have them say/do unto you. What would comfort me?

A rude awakening for me is how selfish I have been and others can be in trying to comfort each other. It is not about me. It never really is. But we can lead with "Me too", or "I know how you feel". 

The oddity of our clumsy and sometimes hurtful attempts to help is this: we have clear ideas from what has helped us in our suffering, but we do not adopt it when seeking to love others. We do not always speak to others in the way we would like to be spoken to.  Edward T. Welch

I remember a comedy routine, where a distant friend goes up to the grieving mother of a murdered child at the vigil to pay his respects. He gets nervous, then tongued tied, and blurts out, "I apologize."  Not the same as "I am sorry." :)

What I learned and others have taught me--Less is more. Stop before you start into your robotic motor mouth routine. Put your well-intentioned pie hole on silent. Silence is better than words. A hug says more than any profound phrases. Everyone deals with grief and suffering in their own ways. But there is a universal understanding that your very presence is more powerful than anything you say.  Bearhug

"I'm sorry." Is enough. 

Again, stop and look both ways before you stick your foot in your "me too" mouth. 

I really try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I hope people have done the same for me! A dear friend, expressed her condolences and tried to comfort me. Then she took the safety off of her verbal trigger and away she went. "Yeah, not a day goes by where I don't cry about my husband." I knew what she was trying to do, but it was our first conversation and the second thing she said.

"How are you doing, today?" The today part is sensitive to what is happening. "How are you?" is auto-pilot and invokes the silent "How do you think I am?!!"

Do not say: “If you need anything, please call me, anytime.” Another well intended thought but.........

– If ‘comforters’ knew anything about real hardship, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.

– If comforters knew anything about the sufferer, they would know what the sufferer wants or needs. 

– If comforters really knew the sufferer, they would know that he or she would never make the call. Never.  Tara Barthel

In his book, "The Reality Slap," Russ Harris presents two lists — the first, a few responses that genuinely make you feel supported and understood; and the second, a number of responses that, although meant to be helpful, aren't really all that compassionate. Let's start with the less compassionate responses (many of which I myself am guilty of, and if we're being honest, most of us have said at times):

  • Telling you to "think positively"
  • Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
  • Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
  • Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
  • Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"

Here are some compassionate responses highlighted in Harris' book:

  • Asking how you feel
  • Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you or holding your hand
  • Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
  • Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
  • Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
  • Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"

I took a thanatology class in college---Death and Dying. I learned about the 5 stages of dying that was asserted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Most of us have heard this. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. It made so much sense to me. It clearly applied to romantic break-ups :) But death? And the grieving? 

Pauline Boss' research disputes the application of these 5 stages to grief. That Kubler-Ross never intended to have them applied to grieving. We all want steps and stages. We want a linear routine to replace the organic reality. Boss' basic thought is closure for grief is a myth. While time heals, you will never be finished with your grief--and closure is only good in real estate. You don't want to forget or get over it. I know there are nuances here but really important ones. 

This myth of closure has helped me be more sensitive, more compassionate. Time heals but never erases. I know this to be true.

A colleague who did not know my Dad, said "Sorry to hear about your Dad. Tell me about him." I smiled, because I got to tell a Dad story and share my love and gratitude. For me, that was one of the nicest and most comforting things anyone said to me.

Part of building and maintaining a vibrant, authentic and altruistic network is our ability to connect to support one another. No time is more crucial than in times of loss and suffering. 

Remind yourself what would comfort you. Stop, pause, and be present. Say less. Suppress your needs and surrender to the needs of the other. Good advice for all of us almost all of the time. Be kind: For we are all fighting great battles and carrying great burdens that are not known to one another. (my interpretation of Philo)

Thanks for reading. John


Moving from Empathy to Altruistic Action

You know when you are thinking about something, then you seem surrounded by that idea. It appears everywhere. That's what is happening with me and the concept of altruism. It is emerging, at least in my worldview, as a trending solution for what ails us. I mean everything that ails us. I know, hang onto your hats and let me finish! :) We all know that in our hearts that caring for one another, unconditionally, is not only right but essential if we are to thrive. We all want to foster a sense of community with others. As Jeremy Rifkin says, a meaningful life comes from belonging not belongings!

No one we know is not empathetic or not compassionate--at least that is what we tell each other!

I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and interview Matthieu Ricard, the respected scientist and Buddhist monk. His latest book Altruism, asserts that social change needs to start with each one of us. That if we each invoke the power of love and genuine care for one another we will change ourselves and the world around us. 

    To do this, we must cultivate altruism on an individual level, for that is where everything begins. Altruism shows us what is good to do, but also how one should be, and what qualities and virtues one should cultivate. Starting with a kindly motivation, altruism should be integrated into our everyday lives, and should reflect the unique quality of every being and every situation. We should promote altruism on the level of society through education, through institutions that respect the rights of every individual, and through political and economic systems that allow everyone to flourish without sacrificing the good of future generations.

Altruism is not just being good and doing nice things from time to time. It is a state of mind that grows and develops and is only strong when our self-centered individuality is secondary. You cannot be truly altruisitic if you are thinking about WIIFM (What’s in it for me)

Prior to meeting Ricard I confused the concepts of empathy, compassion and altruism. Ricard set me straight. While we need all of these perspectives and insights, we really need to adopt an altruistic lifestyle. An action oriented lifestyle of helping others without expectation.

Empathy is an act of humanity where we connect and relate with another. Empathy can lead to compassion and altruism but it can easily lead to distress, burnout and avoidance of action. Empathetic distress caused by the overwhelming dimensions of suffering can make us view suffering: abstractly, as disembodied needs, as nameless and faceless non-human objects and therefore not real. Ironically, empathy can push us towards greater isolation and selfishness. We do this to protect ourselves. And that leads to more concern for self—the enemy of compassion.

In fact new research from Paul Bloom and Richard Davidson contends that empathy alone can lead to less compassion. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain." This research shows that empathy for victims can create hate and anger

Reading Altruism and my time with Ricard shifted my views and assumptions in many ways. This is a book of philosophy and great stories. But this is also an in-depth book of scientific proof. Only a scientist Buddhist monk could write this. Here's what I learned:

  • Empathy is a vital human lens through which we examine ourselves and others. We need to feel for others and resonate with their circumstances. But empathy can be a step toward compassion and altruism. It is inadequate and even dangerous if it does not evolve into compassion and altruism. Change and action are not assured by feeling for others. So empathy can easily lead to isolation, burnout and empathetic distress. 
  • Compassion is the ability to see everyone as equals and worthy of our care, love and unconditional support. That we are all interconnected to each other. That our fates are tied together. And compassion alone is also inadequate without action.
  • Altruism is the unconditional assistance of "others". Altruism is relieving suffering without expectation. True altruism is not driven by an “ROI”, reciprocity, a quid pro quo, and/or personal gain.
  • Altruism is the antidote to empathetic burnout or fatigue. Helping others unconditionally—people we know or don’t know, feed our sense of purpose and gives us a physical and measurable neural lift. Altruism offsets the burden of need and the weight of guilt, and the stress from being unresponsive.
  • Mindfulness meditation are good if you want to rest and empty your mind. But what do we do with an empty mind before it gets re-filled with the congestion of life? Mindfulness and meditation have to have a purpose, a focus. Meditation focused on compassion fills your mind and shifts your brain toward positive action and behavior. As Matthieu warned us, a great sniper needs to be mindful. He needs to be present, breathe calmly, and reach a state of serenity before he kills people.
  • Purposeful meditation can change your mind and lead to physical as well as spiritual growth. At any age and at any stage, you can learn altruism and meditation is the path.
  • We have to see ourselves less as individuals and more interconnected to fates and destinies of all people and living things, including our environment and planet. Individualism is great for talent and competitiveness, but it undermines our compassion and altruism. Ricard 2

What I learned from Ricard is we have to add intentions, purpose, and then action to our feelings. We deceive ourselves that sympathy, empathy, compassion make us altruistic. In the end altruism is about action. Yes we should feel for others and resonate with their suffering (empathy and sympathy). Yes, we should want to alleviate the suffering (compassion). But without action these are selfish, self-medicating, self-absorbing thoughts that fall short of altruism.

Hate, ignorance, anger, indifference, neglect, are heavy burdens we suffer that dissipate when you are altruistic and express compassionate love. We relieve our own suffering through acts of altruism.

Ricard discussed the amazing work he is doing with school children, about 100,000 involved in compassionate meditation. It is having fantastic results. Calming our kids to focus on themselves and others. One of the stories he shared involved elementary school students, referred to as the “stickers test.”

On two occasions, at they gave each of the students a certain number of stickers they adore so much, along with four envelopes containing respectively a photo of their best friend, their least favorite child, an unknown child, and a visibly ill child wearing a bandage on his forehead. They asked each child to distribute the stickers in the four envelopes. They gave almost all of their stickers to their best friend, and very few to the others. After ten weeks of meditation and practicing benevolence, the students were asked to distribute the stickers in the same envelopes.  The students gave an almost equal number of stickers to the four groups of children: they no longer made any distinction between their favorite classmate and the one they liked least.

It has changed the way I talk and teach mentoring and networking. Mentoring and networking can be selfish pursuits of manipulation and self-serving activities without compassion and alrtruism. While I have been trying to counter self-centeredness with interconnectedness, I realize that I never explicitly embedded positive care, love and authentic regard for one another in my teachings. I assumed it was there. That was wrong.

We are not that far from becoming truly altruistic. But it requires us to train, learn and continue to evolve. Ricard really gave me new thoughts that help me understand my own shortcomings and growth opportunities.

Empathy is not enough. Mindfulness is insufficient. Inaction and apathy are self-destructive. We have to become more connected, compassionate and altruistic if we want to save the world and ourselves.

Thanks for reading. John