If we agree that empathy as Webster says is “the imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another,” or, in plain terms, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, I trust we also agree that when taken to an extreme, empathy (or the vicarious experiencing of feelings or attitudes of another)can lead us to be so immersed in another's suffering that we are in danger of losing our sense of self and consequently ignoring the bounty around us.
For those of you who read my memoir and/or last week’s entry in which I included the Epilogue to FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS, you know the importance I place on moving beyond trauma and honoring our strengths in order to live life fully.
That being said, as I sit in the warmth of a sun-filled day – a treat after many rainy days and nights of the past few months – I’m reminded of how easy it is to sink into feelings of despair just thinking about the world's problems: the fires in northern California, the powerful earthquake in Indonesia, the growing numbers of deaths and homeless victims in Taiwan from typhoon Morakot, and the fear of a resurgence of Swine flu here in the States. Of course, there is also the continuing, unforgiving shedding of blood in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Yet, because I am – at least for the moment - safe and protected, even while I empathize with all those who are suffering, there is not much I feel I can do to alter their plight. I can send money to help them in this time of crisis. I can be as politically active as any citizen can be … but, beyond that, I know more than ever what I must not do and what the rest of us must not do. We must not lose hope and surrender to persistent feelings of dread and fear.
In my life, I remained ever vigilant during the traumatic years in which my mother’s mental illness was a constant companion. Always waiting for the next terrifying episode, never trusting that the good times or a good day would last, I often ignored the beauty of the beach and ocean so close to our house. Perhaps because such a pattern is all too familiar – the juxtaposition of external brightness with internal dread - I am reminded that today’s sunshine is not unlike those times in my childhood when the magnificence of the beach was so nearby, the ocean’s waves visible as they rolled with a hush onto shore. The chaos inside our house still took center stage. I had to force myself to believe that I was safe, that the world was safe, and that I would survive. Somehow.
Even now I’m fully aware of how easy it is to move out of the present and return to that past. But,I know, too, that a visceral appreciation for nature’s ultimate beauty and acts of human kindness can co-exist with times of natural upheavals and human cruelties.
Those of us who manage to survive retain our ability to remain empathic because we have stored our blessings in our memory banks, blessings which enable us to reap the rewards of dividends from which to draw upon despite the photos we see in our daily newspapers or the shocking images shown and re-shown on television’s nightly programs.
As an adult, with years of therapy behind me (both as a patient and as a therapist), I know that the goal, if we are to be fully human and loving, is to hold onto our ability to remain empathic, but not at the expense of our own well-being.
While I may not, one day, be able to defend myself from events beyond my control, that is precisely why I am now determined to remain in the moment – allowing both the warmth of the sun as it is setting to offer me comfort and the pale blues and pinks that are painting their way across the sky to fill me with their gentle beauty. I will not permit my empathy to deny me the pleasures of such safety and warmth when they are mine to have.
At least not today.
With all best wishes that you, too, are enjoying whatever pleasures are yours at this time, I wish you all a good week.