Thursday, December 4, 2014

" Take my hand."

“In order to do anything about the suffering of the world we must have the strength to face it without turning away.”
― Sharon Salzberg,
A Heart as Wide as the World: Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness

          Empathy isn't New Age, feel good philosophy designed by pacifists or created by socially conscious "tree huggers".  Empathy isn't singing Kumbaya around a campfire or some sissified solution for anger management issues. Empathy requires more strength and courage than many of us will ever know yet is essential for our own survival. It seems we are in great deficit right now. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another human being allows us to resolve critical conflicts locally and internationally. Empathy isn't pity or condescending because when you practice empathy you are equal to another, not superior.

    Contemporary cognitive researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy”  or the sensations we feel in response to others’ emotions. These feelings can include mirroring what another person is feeling, or detecting when people are stressed, fearful or anxious. “Cognitive empathy,”  or “perspective taking,”  is our ability to understand or identify other peoples’ emotions. This also includes non-verbal clues such as identifying facial expressions and body movements. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a harder time expressing empathy. Scientist's have proven that animals have the ability to empathize with each other and humans. Sociopaths and narcissists on the other hand have almost no ability or desire to feel another persons emotions.

      Why is empathy so important? Think about this. Putting yourself in the "other person's shoes" or "seeing things through someone else's eyes." is the force that instills trust in our relationships. Have you ever loved someone so much you wanted to be able to experience every emotion they were feeling? You want their happiness and security as much as you want your own. The true measure of our empathy is how we treat human beings and especially animals who have no "use" or benefit to us. Considering the thoughts and feelings of others allows us to make intelligent and informed choices. Empathy is a difficult skill to exercise because it requires us to take a good hard honest look at our motives and closely examine our selfish behaviors. How do we recognize pain in others? How do we identify suffering? What is the root cause of their suffering? We have to imagine ourselves in the same situation. We have to be open and curious about the perceptions, thoughts and ideas of others. We have to ask questions. We need to know history, the stories of hope, fear, passion and dreams. Most importantly we have to listen without our own judgments. With awareness comes the motivation to take positive action. Actions that will heal lives rather than destroy them.