Friday, February 15, 2008

All Wrapped Up

I was in a particularly heinous faculty meeting a week or so ago, one of those meetings where the atmosphere gets thick and acrid with the history of old conflicts and resentments.  By the end of the meeting, I found myself nearly doubled over, practically fetal in my chair at the table.  I was angry at the injustice of what was going on, and uncomfortable with the reactions of those around me, and worried that things might escalate.  It was as if I had taken on the emotions of everyone around me, especially those who had much more at stake than I.

I can be overly empathic that way.  Which is not a good thing.

I think a lot about a discussion I had with my therapist a few years back, when we were talking about how overwrought I would get at news of tragedies like the tsunami or 911.  I needed to figure out a way to care about what was going on around me without getting incapacitated by it.  Feeling, good.  Incapacitation, not good.

So, basically, the therapist gives me this to think about:  about how compassion is not feeling what someone else feels, but observing it and being present for it.


It's like you're sitting in front of a stream, he says.  The stream is life, and there are all these little boats--people--floating down the stream.  You can choose to hop on to one of those boats, but you should know that in doing so you're trying to take over someone else's life, to travel their journey for them.  And there is a good chance you'll capsize them (and you) in doing so.  It is better to watch from the stream and offer help when asked:  a line to tow someone in, some food when they are hungry, consolation when necessary.  Mostly, just listen.

This idea troubled me for a long time.  It's bad not to get involved, I thought.  What about fighting for what is right?  What about using rage or anger or excitement to make positive change in the world?

But he wasn't saying not to act.  He was saying that it might be important to act from a place of compassion, not empathy.  Empathy is you assuming you can feel what someone else is feeling.  In a sense, it's fundamentally narcissistic, gives you rights and responsibilities that are probably not yours to take.  Acting from a place of compassion--which is actually a loving distance--enables you to know your space, to remain who you are, and to offer your assistance, not prescribe it.

There's an appeal in prescribing change for others.  I tend to want to do it all the time, to tell them how they can fix themselves, to offer solutions, to assume that what has worked for me will work for them.  But how obnoxious is that?  I'll tell you.  It's completely obnoxious.

And over-empathizing, for me at least, was overwhelming.  It prevented me from seeing that I had agency.  Compassion, on the other hand, is empowering.  You figure out what your own humble self can do, and you do it.  But you do it from your space, and not someone else's.

So, as someone I love is struggling a deep, deep struggle, I will try not to solve his problems.  I will stay in my space, make my presence known, offer whatever help he wants me to.  I'll try to act from a place of integrity, and not from a desire to get all up in someone else's drama.  Cause my jumping on his boat isn't going to help him at all.  But he should know I'm ashore, and am walking alongside his boat should he need a hand. 

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate seeing webs that comprehend the worth of providing a prime useful resource,his help to make this website worth coming back to for even more info,