We’ve all read troubling stories and statistics about the ravaging effects of Covid-19 on skilled nursing and assisted living communities. Numbers of deaths in these long-term care facilities have been disproportionately large in comparison with their larger surrounding populations. The care communities find themselves at the epicenter of the pandemic due to varying degrees of low funding levels, personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, chronic understaffing, high employee turnover, sub-optimal training, challenging resident management situations, and the inherently close quarters associated with them. Yet somewhere out there, you’ll find a Nursing Assistant in a long-term care facility who has selflessly chosen to temporarily move in at her employer community for the duration of the pandemic. She’s done so because she deeply cares about the residents whom she serves. She’s striving to mitigate against further transmission of the virus, even to the detriment of her ability to be with her spouse, partner, or children at home for the foreseeable future during her non-working hours.
Throughout her daily work shifts at this long-term care community, you’ll likely find her taking time to stop and sit for an extended time with a frightened, isolated, and lonely resident—despite the immeasurable demands on staff. Or she’s facilitating a virtual web-based gathering of loved ones with the lonely resident. Or she’s singing songs to the resident; reading a story; sharing memories of life’s experiences; or calming the resident who’s abruptly awakened in the middle of the night. This Nursing Assistant is, herself, desperately frightened and unsettled by the rapid onslaught of the virus’ death march. She’s overworked, fatigued, stressed, angry, and saddened by the loss of life all around her within her employer’s long-term care community. Yet, she has chosen to use this time to make deep and meaningful connections with others there. Not by simply doing a job. But by affirmatively bridging one of our greatest human divides: the lack of authentic empathy toward others in our lives, our relationships, and our work.
As we consider this opening illustrative story, let’s be honest here. Practicing empathy is difficult under even the best of circumstances. And our current circumstances are far from ideal to say the least. There are numerous and daunting challenges to becoming more empathetic ‘selves’ in life. And it feels harder than ever to walk this path. Although society has become increasingly globalized in some respects, many of us have, nonetheless, become more rigidly sequestered in our respective siloes and ‘tribes’. Self-interest can often outweigh more empathetic alternatives of cross-generational, cross-geographic, and cross-cultural understanding. Furthermore, despite the myriad benefits of technology for connected knowledge and communications, we seem more ‘dislocated’ then ever these days—often by our voluntarily cutting off the relational, historical, and ecological anchors that bind things, events, and each other together more fully in time. Virtual can never replace face-to-face in all things.
And that’s not all. As a society, we’re heavily time-challenged in our lives. There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done in this demanding, over-wrought world of ours. As such, our patience tends to run low. Especially when confronted with the need to slow down for a few minutes to support someone at the expense of achieving something else important in life. Human empathy takes a ‘back seat’. What’s more, we’re constantly bombarded by stories of misfortune in the media. They come at us every day like a tsunami of pain. Through our TVs, smartphones and screens, we virtually ‘witness’ the misery of suffering multitudes throughout the world on a regular basis. Yet we don’t really see their faces as individual victims. Or hear their individual stories in any real depth. Instead, we’re fatigued with a generalized anxiety and faceless compassion burnout. Our current Coronavirus pandemic has only heighted this problem. To make matters even more difficult, the pandemic has caused us to view our daily human interactions differently. We’ve become more focused than ever on people in our immediate midst. In an effort to stay safe, we’re paying close attention to proper social distancing protocols, signs of personal illness in others, cleanliness and hygiene, and public health mandates around things like wearing facemasks. But too many of us have quit paying empathetic attention to the spiritual depth of who and what’s around us anymore.
So, having and extending empathy is a significant challenge in our world and times. And, frankly speaking, much of what passes for empathy today amounts to nothing more than pity or feeling sorry for someone else. Nothing more than assuaging our guilt or remorse about him or her. Anchored in the sense that we’re doing OK when someone else isn’t right now. We’re seemingly ‘whole’ while someone else is ‘broken’. We feel sadness for the other person and wish they could get better, be better, find better, or stay better. And that’s a big problem. Not just because our feelings aren’t authentically empathetic. But also because our ability to empathize with others is born in our own ‘Woundedness’– not in our feelings of relative strength. Empathy is grounded in our personal experiences of alienation, separation, isolation, loneliness, loss, setbacks, sickness, fear, and impermanence. To be clear in this regard, we shouldn’t use these brokenness experiences as an opportunity to tell another, “I understand what you’re going through. Let me tell you about what happened to me. I went through something very similar.” This is not empathy. Instead, it’s our personal neediness seeking empathy from someone else who’s also suffering. Real empathy concerns itself with how our own difficult experiences in life change and soften our hearts. About how we, in turn, open ourselves to more fully relating to the perceived pain and suffering of others around us.
Next, empathy is also grounded in our Vulnerability. In the knowledge that we face daily threats just as others do. As empathetic persons, we invite someone into our lives because we, too, have faced (and therefore shared) insecurity. While we may not fully understand the vulnerability of someone else, we can relate to their situation in life. The vulnerability-based roots of empathy are found in the longstanding, historical notion of hospitality. As far back as Ancient Near East societies, hospitality was celebrated, honored, and even expected toward travelers and strangers. Extending hospitality entailed welcoming these people into one’s home. The provision of food, beverage, shelter, and rest was expected toward traveling strangers. As was ensuring the traveler’s protection and safety during their time with the host family. And providing needed items to the guest for his/her next leg of the journey. But it didn’t simply entail providing things for the outsider. It also required offering something of oneself (as the host) in the process, as well. Things such as washing the stranger’s feet, conveying a blessing on the traveler, sitting with them as they shared a common meal together. Importantly, the host expected no reciprocity from the traveler. For, in these times, everyone had been or might reasonably expect to be in the same precarious situation in the future: trying to survive a long, arduous, and potentially dangerous trek—dependent on the gracious and empathetic hospitality of a host along the way. In these ancient societies, empathy was the natural outgrowth of shared human vulnerability.
Lastly, empathy is grounded in our own well-centered, well-functioning ‘Being’. For it’s difficult to extend empathy toward another if we’re unclear about our own identity as empathetic persons. It’s hard to be fully present for another human being in need if we’re not first present within ourselves as fully differentiated individuals. The effectiveness with which we cope with our own conscious and unconscious anxieties and fears will dramatically impact how successfully we’re able to empathize with others in life. For example, it’s difficult to imagine our displaying authentic empathy if we’re typically fused or enmeshed with others in our existing circles of relationships. When we need others to ‘complete’ us, our empathy looks more like dependency. Conversely, if we’re quick to emotionally distance from or cut off others in our current relationships, we’ll never get close enough to people in need in order to form an empathetic bond. Furthermore, while empathy involves extending oneself to others, we risk creating dependency by them on us if we’re always over-functioning in relationships. Fostering dependency on us isn’t helping others. It’s speaking to our own needs for self-affirmation of worth, not the needs of the person whom we’re trying to support. Lastly, we’re likely to project (or transfer) our emotional problems onto others if we’re not fully conscious of them in ourselves. Transferring our dysfunctions outward is not empathy. It’s nothing more than off-loading, however good our intentions might seem to be. So, in order to hold healthy empathy, we need to be working on ourselves, as well.
But what does well-grounded human empathy toward others really look like? It entails multiple elements— three of which I’ll cover here. First, human empathy strives for Understanding versus opinion. Empathy isn’t judgmental or overly evaluative. It’s nurtured through curiosity, observation, openness, and mindful presence with people and things around us. We can’t be empathetic unless we try to more fully understand a person and his/her situation in life. As such, real empathy isn’t possible if we’re busy forming opinions, conclusions, and judgments prematurely from the outset of our human interactions. Second, empathy is driven by the belief that all people are Inherently Sacred. It requires that we approach others in need with a mindset of equality, not our own superiority. It is based on finding common ground, not on our imposed, graduated scales of differences. And it’s not just equality that I’m speaking of here. It’s essential interrelatedness, as well. Because we’re all part of a cosmic strand of connection (past, present, and future) in this world. We’re actually one in our nature, not separate from each other.
Third, and lastly, empathy is driven by getting out of our own ‘Heads and Minds’ more often in life. Then living in our ‘Hearts’ to a far greater extent. When we open up our hearts– and not simply our minds– to another, we simultaneously avail ourselves to deeper, more authentic engagement. This heart-felt engagement starts with our presence-based, intentional listening to others. Not listening in order to impatiently make our own points in response. But, rather, actively joining another person at every level of their story. We can certainly ask questions in an effort to build understanding of another’s situation. But our questions should never involve satiating our curiosity in order to intrude into another person’s soul. Inquiries of others should always be about helping us to empathetically ‘walk in their shoes’ for a moment. Finally and ironically enough, getting out of our own heads means that we must sometimes quit listening to our minds. Let me explain this a bit. As human beings, many of us are hardwired for ‘flight’ when we’re faced with the pain and suffering of others. Especially when we’re lost for the right words to say in the moment. Or when we know we can’t fix another person. When we can’t throw them a handy lifeline. Or when everything feels uncertain and unsettling. Getting out of our heads in empathy means that we actually stay with the other person– even when we’re struggling to do so. That’s because doing so is the greatest possible manifestation of empathy. It’s our loving presence that counts most, not our advice or our wise words or our promise to fix things.
In the end, the paucity of empathy in our world is often viewed at a societal, not an individual, level. We’re confronted with the collective symptoms and outcomes every day when we look around our empathy-starved workplaces, communities, gathering spots, and even our places of worship at times. It seems like our dysfunctions and disconnections in this regard are pulling us further and further apart from each other these days. As if the divide of desensitization is ever widening. Yet bridging this gaping divide begins not with society as a whole, but with each of us. One person at a time. We become a more empathetic world when you and I, as individuals, become more empathetic. Then when we act individually with greater empathy toward others. And it starts not with outsized, heroic, and well-publicized acts. But, instead, with our almost unnoticed and small, but generous and unselfish, actions each day.
We all have the capacity to become more empathetic. And to regularly act more empathetically. For empathy doesn’t apply solely to the super-heroes of the world. Everyday people, like the Nursing Assistant that I described at the outset of this article, regularly act with empathy in their lives. As you recall, the Nursing Assistant patiently sat by the bedside of a lonely and frightened resident in a long-term care facility. She was authentically empathetic toward the resident in those moments. This empathy was grounded in her own self-acknowledged ‘woundedness’ and vulnerability. Yet grounded also in her wholeness as a well-differentiated person. In her selfless acts of empathy, she sought deeper understanding with another human being. She engaged the resident with an abiding respect. And she ‘led’ with her heart, not with her head. Perhaps in her own way of thinking, her act of empathy was nothing really… at least in the grand scheme of things. But, in truth, it was everything. Everything. It was profoundly simple, yet utterly lifesaving, in a spiritual sense of the word. Because, in that moment, she empathetically connected with another in a profound, boldly sacred way. In the process, she singlehandedly and lovingly bridged an enormous empathy divide. And gave peace to another human soul.