DOES adversity harden hearts or warm them? Does experiencing deprivation, disaster or illness make a person more — or less — sympathetic to the travails of others?
You’ve probably encountered examples of each: survivors of hard knocks who lend a compassionate ear to beleaguered souls, and those who offer only a disdainful “suck it up.” As a result, it may seem that adversity’s effect on kindness is unpredictable.
“The Funny Thing About Adversity“, The New York Times [online] 16th October 2015
I was browsing my Twitter feed and came across this article about empathy. It described research which concluded that people are more empathetic with others who are experiencing adversity if they have experienced suffering themselves. Ok, I could have predicted that myself and that was their hypothesis to begin with. What grabbed my interest was the fact they concluded that if a person was going through exactly what you went through, you would not be so empathetic and in fact are more likely to take the “suck it up and deal” line. This is not what I have found myself. I feel desperately sad for anyone who loses anyone, even if I don’t know them.
And yet… when I reflect on what I really feel when I think about them, the reality is that there can be a sense of “yes, this happens in life, you’ll get over it.” I feel terribly sad for them, but not that same feeling where it’d seem like this insurmountable, awful experience that I couldn’t imagine being able to overcome myself, like it used to. Sometimes there’s a cool, calm, lack of emotion alongside feelings of empathy and it’s rather strange. The article explains that this is to do with the fact that our brains automatically forget how bad an experience was, so when someone else experiences it we can be less empathetic having decided that it isn’t actually all that bad really. However, we are in tune with how horrible pain and suffering is so we can easily empathise with suffering in general, when it isn’t the same as our own.
I read another NY Times article that expressed how empathy is being attacked by our tech-centred culture. Yes, yes, more device-use bashing on, yes you guessed it, an internet source that you can only access WITH YOUR DEVICE. How will we learn not to look at our devices if we can’t look at them to find out why we shouldn’t be? Such larks.
Anyhow, it is an important point about how it dulls our capacity for empathy when we don’t fully engage and connect with the person in front of us. The article states that even a phone that is sitting on the table, not in use, will impact the conversation. Empathy requires really looking at someone, what feelings are they expressing? It requires really listening to someone, what are they actually saying behind the words they are using? We all want to be understood and have someone share in our feelings, especially when they are overwhelmingly dire.
I was asked recently to comment on a bereavement toolbox type document to be used with young people and there was an image that stated the helpful things people say to a grieving soul and the unhelpful things people say. In summary, the unhelpful things tried to console, fix, or advise and I will summarise why they are unhelpful: there is no consolation, you cannot fix it, I don’t need to be told what to do to make myself feel better – I don’t want to feel better, what I feel is appropriate for what I have lost. The helpful words all simply expressed one sentiment:
“I don’t understand, but I’m here.” “I’m so sorry.” “I love you and I want to listen.”
I think one of the best examples of empathy is in the bible. When Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps. He did have consolation to offer, “I’m going to bring him back to life, dry your eyes.” But he sees the pain of others and feels it too. Death is the ultimate source of pain and the appropriate response is weeping, not words.
It would appear that there are a lot of articles about empathy because I read another one and its title summarised what I was going to conclude in this post, so… I guess read it and then I’m done! Not really. “Empathy is Actually a Choice” is the title and the researchers in this piece are arguing that there is a choice involved to engage your brain when presented with the suffering of others. To think about it and imagine it from their point of view rather than just dismiss it or reduce it based on your capacity or life-experiences. I think some of us are naturally more empathetic than others and if everyone were super-sensitive types we’d all be in a heap on the floor all the time – probably just set off crying because someone else is crying even though we don’t know why. That’s not terribly useful. I am a super-sensitive type, completely disturbed and having nightmares for days after catching sight of some bullfighting on TV, defending the woodlice of the playground. That kind of child. My Nanny loves to recount a story from my childhood when we were all at an Elim conference and sadly, my Grandad’s sister’s husband suddenly had a heart attack and passed away while we were there. Apparently, shortly after it all happened my great auntie was sitting in our chalet and I just sat at her feet and watched her for a while. It meant a lot to her, I hear, each time I visit my Nan.
An area of my life where I am trying to apply empathy is in parenting. In some respects children can be the most difficult human beings to empathise with. “Yes, I hear you, you’re disappointed. You really wanted to play with the knife, it looks fun to you, but it is sharp and I have to keep you safe so I can’t let you” (said in between screams to the back of their head as they lie facedown on the floor). What I really want to say is, “oh your life is so hard isn’t it? Let me give you some REAL problems.”
The truth is, children can face loss and grief in their day to day over seemingly silly things that are completely illogical. That doesn’t really matter. They are children and they are feeling loss and grief. I want to raise children who can face these feelings, feel them without shame, and realise that they can come out the other side unscathed. How do I achieve that?
I think instinctively as parents we can feel as though we are being permissive if we acknowledge the negative feelings a child presents when we impose a limit. We can also feel embarrassed if their meltdown is public and want to quickly pacify. But I believe most, if not all, “bad” behaviour comes from feelings of discomfort and negative feelings need to be expressed. Another difficulty we can face is that it is all too easy to take their behaviour personally. “But I went through hell to give birth to you, I’ve been awake almost 24/7 since, I feed you and clothe you and just five minutes ago bought you a new toy and you are kicking off because you want another one. How dare you?” Young children don’t really work like that, or think like that. They are not capable of empathy. All we can end up doing is loading on some guilt and shame to their already large pile of bad feelings that they don’t understand. I’m speaking of young children because that’s how far my experience goes but I maintain that we ALL need empathy. With older kids it can be harder sometimes because we can literally be the cause of some big difficult feelings but also, they are more independent and starting to experience these REAL problems. I read a story about a young girl who had lost a swimming race and was very disappointed. Most of the adults present were saying things like, “you’ll race again and maybe win next time” “it doesn’t matter, it’s just one race.” She wasn’t perking up. Her Nan just walked over and sat beside her and said, “you worked really hard before that race, you’re really disappointed you didn’t win.” The girl received her embrace and shed some tears and all was well again.
This week I have been sporting a handsome one and a half inch gash down my face. I look like some evil villain, it’s kind of cool really. Do I have a feline pet, you wonder? No, I have a three year old. At a toddler group my son was struggling with the fact that other children wanted to play with the train set too. He wanted to have all the engines and trucks to make one giant train but as we all know – snatching, hogging, pushing children over isn’t generally socially acceptable. So I intervened telling him I understood he wanted all the trains but he can’t because they are for everyone and I wasn’t going to let him snatch them away. He was pretty mad whilst I attempted to restrain him. I dodged one swipe but unfortunately my reflexes let me down and I got clawed in the face while he lashed out. So, I took him out of the room and told him we were going to go home. He was very upset, not because of being told we were going home, he was already upset about the whole situation – it actually wasn’t fun for him. My cheek was stinging like crazy and I am thankful I was in public because it helped me stay calm and react how I would want to. I wasn’t going to let him back in there when he was struggling so much and could potentially hurt other children. We were going home even though he didn’t want to.
When I thought about things from his perspective I realised how hard it is to be at a toddler group sometimes. I reflected back to earlier in the morning when he had seemed fine and happy and a little boy had been telling him ‘no’ and been snatching when he had tried to play with him – that won’t have felt nice even though as an adult I can see that it is age-appropriate behaviour. I thought about how, at his age now, he will play with one thing in a focussed way for a while. Toddlers will pick something up and drop it and pick something else up, often that something will already be in use by another child and it must be a nightmare for him to navigate this sometimes, with an age group that are cognitively incapable of sharing. I told him I understood he was struggling in that environment. I couldn’t let him hurt and snatch, but I understood. I didn’t tell him to stop crying – he needed to offload whatever it was that was causing his short fuse. He needed to cry, even though it was loud and screamy and uncomfortable. When my kids are crying and I’m tempted to ssh or console, fix or advise, I imagine an adult saying these sorts of things to me… “I know you’re sad about your Dad, but listen, we are having SAUSAGES for dinner!!” “I know you’re feeling terrible pain right now, but in two months SANTA IS COMING (with Elf-like enthusiasm and volume)”. I think they actually need the same as us… “I understand, it’s ok to be sad because you can’t eat playdoh, I’m not going to let you eat it, but I’m listening.”
After this incident I also thought about how two days previously I had been gone all day in London watching my sister’s race. Then the next day I was working for the morning as a one-off. My boy hadn’t had much time with me, which he really needs. Thankfully a kind friend offered to watch my daughter for the rest of the time at group and we walked home together and got croissants on the way and then sat together to eat his favourite snack. He was happy as larry but If I’m honest I was a bit grumpy for the rest of the day. I wanted to do something I have recognised in the past few months where I feel as though I can’t take anymore hurt so I want to be a snail and slink back into my shell and be left alone. I felt attacked by my son… because I was literally attacked by my son! But in the moment, I chose empathy. I don’t always, though I want to. In the afternoon I wanted the day to be over so I could be alone but I knew both my children needed connection. I got the paints out and they had a ball. It was a good activity because I could not leave them unattended unless I wanted my living room redecorated. I left my phone alone and was completely present. My son was great the rest of the day.
Just before we left the toddler group, we went into the toilet so I could use it. I looked in the mirror and said to my son:
“Look at my face, you hurt me, is there anything you want to say?”
He said, “sorry,” and continued to cry.
I sat on the loo and he stood right in front of me and suddenly said, still in his sobbing weepy voice…
“Have you got a penis?” Sob, sniff.
Can’t stay mad at these little people for long.