I have a lot of empathy, I always have done. When I was younger I used to think of it as having an emotional antenna. I couldn’t be happy if I could tell there was someone else in the room who was sad. I could detect a change in someone’s mood before they had a chance to say a word. You would have called me a sensitive child. There were just so many feelings around me and it took time to learn how to regulate my own emotions, and to harness empathy into something that I could use, without it destroying me.
Empathy is different from Sympathy. Imagine your friend finds themselves down a dark chasm. Sympathy is when you stand at the top, out of the way, and shout down your words of encouragement. You may not realise it but you have maintained emotional distance from the person, offering insight from afar. Empathy on the other hand requires you to climb down into the chasm with them, to sit where they sit for a while. You imagine yourself in their shoes before you speak.
Empathy connects people, it builds teams and relationships. It can be the doorway to showing people they are not alone. It is what we look for when we’re feeling lost and misunderstood. Empathy can dissolve conflict and build bridges we hadn’t expected. It is undervalued but it is what a divided and fractured world needs most.
But having a lot of empathy can be painful. You open up your heart to experience not just your own pain, but an echo of the pain of others. The more you practice empathy, the more you realise that the world is full of pain and heartbreak, that you cannot cure. If you’re not careful this pain can weigh you down, leave your heart heavy and bruised. Empathy is my greatest strength but it also has the potential to be my biggest weakness.
I have good boundaries at work, I have to. I leave my clients behind when I walk out the office.I do not linger in the places that our telephone conversations may have taken me to.
But my friends come home with me. They are happily entangled in my life. I cannot help but carry an echo of their troubles with me. And sometimes no matter how much time you sit with them in these places, the right words do not come.
I haven’t written anything in a month, and I have been struggling to pin point why. But the more I think about it the more I wonder if it’s because my words haven’t felt enough lately. I know a lot of people who are walking difficult roads right now. And every time I have opened my mouth my words have felt feeble and insufficient.
I do not know what to say to the person who has had to walk away from a job they used to love. Or to the person who has had their life turned upset down and has to find the strength to rebuild again. I don’t know how to find words to bring comfort for those battling illness or faced with bereavement. Are there words for broken dreams, loneliness and pain? Every time I try to find them they sound so empty.
And yet I am writing again. I think perhaps it’s because I have realised that it is the very act of trying to find the words that matters. Of listening and sharing in the heart ache. That sometimes what you need is someone who cares enough sit with you in the silence. That when my words are wrong, maybe the heart behind them will shine through.
When words fail me, I have to trust that God can fill the spaces between my words. That where words leave behind emptiness, he can bring wholeness. That where they cannot shift the sorrow, he can bring hope. That he can fill my ineloquence or thoughtlessness with his wisdom.
Words will fade away. But perhaps you will still remember that someone climbed down and sat with you in the pain, that in that moment you weren’t alone. Maybe you can never be truly alone, for as long as we have empathy to share.