Empathy: The Power to Reconcile Guilt
There is so much pain and suffering across the globe these days that it can be difficult to resist the urge to avert our eyes—particularly when we hold this suffering up in contrast to the privilege and protection that so many of us enjoy. But as stark as the contrast, there really isn’t much of a relationship between the two, and the incipient guilt of feeling like you have too much in relationship to the have nots does nothing to help. Instead, as psychotherapist Barry Michels, the brilliant co-author of The Tools and frequent goop contributor explains, powering up empathy to motivate action creates the best possible outcome for everyone.
Tapping into Empathy
You’re about to read a painful piece about Syrian refugees—another about the destiny of foster care children, followed by a journalist reporting on climate change and the world our children will inherit.
None of it is easy reading. Families just like ours are being torn apart, young lives are being ruined, while many of us enjoy the comfort of a stable, prosperous existence. After you’re finished, you might find yourself glancing at an expensive handbag you’ve been wanting for awhile, or leafing through some recipes to contemplate what meal you’re going to make for your picky kids at dinner, or considering a fancy vacation, and think: “Is this really what I’m thinking about, when people across the world are scrounging to feed their babies?”
It’s a natural reaction. How do you not feel guilty taking pleasure in a good life when the lives of so many others are filled with suffering? But think about guilt for a moment. Does your guilt help the Syrian refugees, or young people aging out of foster care? If anything, we tend to avoid situations that trigger a lot of guilt. Which means you might find yourself wanting to perpetually stick your head in the sand about much of the suffering that surrounds us all. It’s much easier not to think about it.
“How do you not feel guilty taking pleasure in a good life when the lives of so many others are filled with suffering? But think about guilt for a moment. Does your guilt help the Syrian refugees, or young people aging out of foster care?”
I’d like to suggest a more productive approach. It evokes a force that’s different from guilt. It’s not based on what’s right or wrong—and it doesn’t require you to deprive yourself in order to help someone else. It’s a way of giving to others while you also give to yourself. While guilt tends to contract your life, this is a force that expands your life.
The force I’m talking about is compassion.
It’s the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and empathize with what they’re feeling in a given situation. It might sound strange, but most people tend to avoid feeling empathy. The reason is simple: It hurts. When you empathize with someone—whether it’s someone close to you or someone halfway around the world—you’re going to feel their pain inside you. Most of us would rather hold other people’s suffering at arms-length. But empathy has a distinct advantage over guilt: it motivates you to help others and simultaneously increases your ability to enjoy your own life.
“It might sound strange, but most people tend to avoid feeling empathy. The reason is simple: It hurts.”
How can you put this into practice? As you read the pieces in this issue I suggest you imagine yourself in the situations that are depicted. Feel what these refugees are feeling: the terror of knowing that at any moment you or your children could die; the sadness about those who’ve already lost their lives, the rage at those you blame for the crisis—and any other feelings that come up for you. Think about what it would feel like to be separated from your young siblings and set adrift in a foster care system, fearful for your life, worried about your next meal, uncertain about your future. Let those emotions fill you intensely as you read these articles. Make a commitment, every day, to feel them on behalf of those who are suffering. After that, see if any ideas for action come to you. You might find yourself, as these powerful mom-activists suggest, calling your representative to demand that we, as the richest country in the world, admit more than an embarrassingly paltry number of Syrian refugees, that we ensure case worker loads are decreased, that we reduce gun violence, that we make policy changes to halt global warming. You might find yourself adopting a Syrian family that has already emigrated here. You may find yourself donating or volunteering time. You might find yourself praying for those who are suffering, as well as discussing their plight with your friends and family.
One thing’s for sure: You’ll be surprised to find that compassion is a much stronger and more enduring motivator than guilt.
More importantly, if you put compassion in first place—before action—your actions will represent the best in you. Whatever you do will express who you truly are. You will feel that you are not only helping others but helping yourself expand beyond your everyday, ordinary life. As your heart grows to encompass the suffering of others, your life will expand to encompass new people and experiences. That means you’ll be able to enjoy your own life while opening your heart to those whose lives are blighted by circumstances they cannot control. To put it simply: If you care for others, you can also care about the quality of your own life.
The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that there is a level of existence in which we are all connected. He called it the “collective unconscious.” If he is correct, then compassion isn’t just something you feel inside you; it’s a force that affects people you don’t know and may never meet. If we can increase the amount of empathy in the world, it’s possible we can eventually prevent tragedies from occurring. Surely, it’s worth trying.