This is the second blog on empathy. Everyone thinks they are empathetic, but few have more than the most rudimentary level of empathy. The second level of empathy is when you move from verbalizing your empathy to emotively expressing your empathy. You hear or see something that you assess you should have empathy or you feel some kind of emotional empathy (anger, sad, fear, feel anxious etc.,). You cry, yell, or shrink. But the empathy is expressed not to call attention to someone’s situation but about how their situation makes you feel. A classic expression of this when someone announces they feel your pain. The empathy is centered on yourself and not the situation of the other. You are no longer following societal norms you are indeed feeling their pain but your expression of it is about self.
They will feel most empathetic about things they have no control or do not encounter in their daily lives if ever. In fact, they can have some borderline psychological problems. Many moons ago I worked in a group home for paranoid schizophrenics. On one particular occasion, one of our residents came into my office in tears. This man was from an upper-class family and had shown at one time great potential. He had several poems published and was in an elite Ivy League college, but the disease had taken over his mind and left him mentally unable to function. He no longer could write coherently, and his conversations would often meander into delusions. But this day he was very coherent about the pain he was feeling. He had watched the news and there was an earthquake in some Asian country, and he felt horrible about this event. He somehow inexplicably came to the conclusion that he was responsible. He over identified with the plight of the people.
When the Twin Towers in New York came down after an attack I cannot tell you how many people around me knew someone in the Towers. Now this might have been true for some but impossible for most. In fact, when I asked them about this. They would play the Kevin Bacon game of 'twelve degrees of separation'. They knew someone that knew someone that knew. When I worked with people impacted with AIDS in the early days of the crises, I constantly would have people who wanted to ‘volunteer’ so they could meet for a day someone infected so they could say they knew someone with AIDS. They would break down in tears and say how important volunteering was for them. But often they would volunteer one day and be gone. Why only one day? Because it was not about the persons living with AIDS but about their need to show and be recognized for caring. I feel your pain.
This is often the realm of the liberal heart. You may be sensitive about the needs of others and how they may feel and your response is to let them know you understand. They feel a need to be affirmed that indeed they feel and even think right so they must be a good person. These individuals are usually known in racial issues as the fragile white. They want to be affirmed that they are not like other whites. They cannot be called racist because they feel and speak the right things. So even though they may participate in a racist system they are offended when confronted about this because they know how you feel. They are mad about it. They are depressed about it. So, you should be able to see that they are good people. These are what are called the rush to hush people who do not need to hear your stories because they make them feel bad and they already know how you feel. Thus, racism can continue at this level of empathy because you are not interested in ending racism but instead being recognized for your understanding of the problem.
This is a step up from stage one in that you are not merely fulfilling a societal expectation but indeed feel their pain, but it falls short of the deepest forms of empathy. In my next blog I will continue to explore a third stage of empathy. Until then try to listen to another’s needs and pain.