Empathy

Every year on Rosh Hashanah, my wife and I each think of a one-word concept that we want to work on for the year. I chose empathy. To help with developing more empathy, I participated in a day-long retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Brattleboro, VT, where Jay Oren Sofer provided various mini-lectures and led a few activities and guided-meditations. One particular guided-meditation practice had tremendous impact for me. Each of us concentrated on a situation when someone left us emotionally hurt or did not give us what we wanted. The 4 questions were: (1) What did I want from the person? (2) Why was it important to have what I wanted? (3) What did the other person give me instead? (4) Why do I think the person did this? Meditating on these 4 questions has helped me respond to many people in gentler and more effective ways than I would have in the past.

One of my struggles with empathy is when a person is being blatantly disrespectful to cause emotional harm. During those moments, part of me wants to escape and never think about what happened again, which usually results in the event festering and feeding upon itself in unproductive ways. However, I’m beginning to learn that I am healthier, stronger, and more empathetic when I run towards the sharp points of my life to deeply explore their influence on me and others.

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9 thoughts on “Empathy

  1. “When I run towards the sharp points of my life”–that phrase really caught my attention. I’m not one who enjoys confrontations, so this post resonated with me. I can think of a very personal time when someone was exhibiting what you wrote so well as “blatant disrespect to cause emotional harm.” I can certainly feel empathy for that person, but I’m not sure I’m to the point of forgiveness. How do you reach that point?

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    1. Personally, I believe reaching a point of forgiveness is more for yourself than for the individual who harmed you. I think back to shooting in Charleston, SC when a white man killed 9 people in a historic African-American church. The first act of the relatives who lost their loved ones was to very publicly forgive the shooter. I immediately interpreted that gesture from the relatives as their move towards to sharp points to heal in a healthy way.

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      1. What a great tradition for Rosh Hashanah. I admire your quiet steadfast manner so much. And I love the phrase “sharp points” too. I think we should start every staff meeting with meditation. Imagine that!

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  2. I love the 4 questions, I think they can guide our reactions in the classroom. Our students don’t always deliver what we expect but a little empathy for why could go a long way!

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  3. Those four questions would be great to mediate many things in our classroom! Thank you for sharing those with us! And thank you for this slice! The tone of your writing suggests that the retreat was a success for you, and I hope you continue to see results in your interactions with others! 🙂

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  4. This is a really amazing goal. My goal for this year was to be grateful every single day. While I haven’t kept up with the formal writing in a gratitude journal, this goal has caused me to try to see at least one good moment in every day rather than harp on the negative (which is so, so easy to do). I admire your connection between mindfulness and empathy and hope I can think of these things as connected more often, myself.

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  5. Thank you, Jason. When I am hurt, I do immediately get stuck on my perspective. The four questions you shared will help me step back and review the incident with a more balanced view. It is difficult but important. Number 4 can be challenging: (4) Why do I think the person did this?
    Thank you again for reminding me about the importance of empathy.

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  6. Like other commenters, I admire that you and your wife choose such personal goals for the year, and then as you’ve described, act on them to guide your path. I like the four questions, too, and wonder if you keep a journal through the year? Your insight must deepen during this time, a good thing for you, and for those you interact with. I’m glad I read your post!

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