wings and things

Empathy requires effort

on March 19, 2013

A few thing have happened lately that have drawn my attention to the notion of empathy – that ability to identify with someone else’s suffering and to feel it too. This is not as easy as sympathy.

Okay the first thing that made me think about empathy was (as blogged previously) Ming’s inability to feel it for Anthony. Then, last night, after Ming got home from his weekend away, he was obviously unconcerned about my asthma until I said, “Why don’t you care?”

“Because I don’t know what it feels like, Mum!” he said. Ïf you want me to care, you have to tell me to; if you want my support, you have to tell me how.”

Food for thought: empathy doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

The second thing that made me think about empathy was a blogpost by a friend whose beautiful daughter died recently after years of suffering. This mother’s grief is raw and almost unbearable to read about, and my sympathy for her is enormous, but what about my empathy?

So I tried to imagine it; I tried to imagine my only child, Ming, dying and dead, but I couldn’t get my imagination to get beyond his dying to his death because it was too hard. I felt so wretched with grief I had to stop my imagination.

Food for thought: Empathy does come naturally to some and I thought I was one of those, but I’m not sure anymore whether it is possible to feel empathy (automatically) for someone who has experienced something that you haven’t.

How can 19-year-old Ming feel empathy for his 77-year-old father? Is it something that needs to be taught?

I wonder.

74 responses to “Empathy requires effort

  1. Robyn Lee says:

    big topic Julie — I have to think about it some more… and then where does “compassion” come in I wonder?

  2. janechese says:

    really good questions here, Julie. I think it is the same for compassion- easier to feel compassion if you have been through it.Ha, I wonder if it is a synonym for empathy? I am going to have to look up all these words in the dictionary. I learn a lot from these blogs – both in literature and emotional issues.

  3. niasunset says:

    It is not easy to put ourselves in anothers shoes, dear Julie. And he is very young. There is a song, I remember, I know what’s to be young, but do you know what’s to be old…. But on the other hand there is a disease that makes him so sad too. And what’s going on in his own world… I don’t think that he doesn’t feel empathy…. Maybe he tries to keep himself strong like that dear Julie… Thanks and Love, nia

    • jmgoyder says:

      And it just occurred to me that if Ming felt this empathy he would be suffering too and what would be the point of that? Thanks for your insight, Nia.

  4. victoriaaphotography says:

    I’m not sure that it can be taught, Julie. I think it takes a certain amount of experience in the suffering or difficulties others endure, but I also think that some (rare) people have an instinctive part of their psyche that is empathetic. Some people don’t need the experience to comprehend suffering.

    I’m not naturally empathetic, but I have learned some empathy since I’ve had chronic pain and illness. Now I have a need for people around me to show empathy, I have a better understanding of what it means to be empathetic.

    If you’ve had everything great in life handed to you on a plate, you don’t have any understanding of what those struggling with life’s challenges feel. On the other hand Buddhist monks, Nuns and other people of faith seem to have acquired sympathy, empathy and a whole lot more understanding of human nature through their training and study.

    I am not old & yet now that I have memory & some cognitive dysfunction AND difficulty getting around and doing some tasks physically, I have an understanding of how an elderly person might face mental & physical challenges. I was always very good with babies & the young, not with the elderly

    An I contradicting myself here?

    To gain empathy, first one needs to learn how to listen (to the person needing empathy). Most young people know how to talk. learn and share, copy and do (what their peers do), but they often don’t know how to listen. Listening is an acquired trait. Some people never do learn how to listen.

    Another different example…..My Mother always told me I never understand how hard her life was, how she struggled with minimal money and exhausting chores in her early marriage. She was constantly telling me how hard the farmer’s lot was and how I couldn’t possibly understand where she was coming from. My reply was that farmers weren’t the only people in the community to have a difficult life and that a single person has struggles too (of which a married person with a partner to help out, has no knowledge of). We ALL suffer (in some way or other). We all have difficulties. Some more that others. We are also all connected in some way. Until Ming feels the difficulties and struggle of life, he will remain unaware of this connectedness.

    Perhaps Ming is sheltered to a certain extent by having a job, living at home and now, relatively good health (i hope). He’s probably almost forgotten what it was like with his severe scoliosis even. He’s young, has probably got good cognitive function, memory, creative ability and a whole lot more. While he has all the things to sustain his current needs, he may not be able to feel empathy (or sympathy).

    That’s where ‘Listening’ comes in too. Until he listens (or can hear) what the person needing empathy is saying (or needing), then he can’t feel empathetic. In turn, the person needing empathy has to learn how to communicate this need. He/she needs to learn how to talk or show what their needs are. The person needing empathy needs to reach out and ask.

    No man/woman is an island (and self-sufficient).

  5. tersiaburger says:

    Oh Julie you are such an amazing person. You have been such a good friend. You have been an amazing source of support to me. Thank you. Ming is scared.

  6. Hi Julie, I think empathy comes with experience and age. It’s only through experience that we can get the idea of how othes feel. Don’t forget that Ming is male and a teenager and so this mighty account for his apparent lack of empathy.
    Hope the asthma clears soon.

    • jmgoyder says:

      Yes, I think you have an interesting point about maleness here but I don’t want to get into trouble with male readers. Youth and lack of experience are definite reasons. Thanks, Brenda.

  7. annotating60 says:

    Not taught–it is only learned.>KB

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hiya lovely, Ming is young, he will have empathy just not for some (boring) things. Broken hearts, losing a ticket to great band, feeling shy near a hot chick!! As many above stated, it comes with age and experience! We aren’t taught as much as live it, perhaps from feeling pain, enduring hiccups in our childhood, racism, pregnancy, unrequited love, looking a dork, losing someone we love, being brave, being ill etc leads us to greater understanding of how others also suffer, that will go for joy and happiness too! 🙂 What do u think??
    We can imagine as you did the loss of a child, which we can feel and have empathy, or sympathy for another, but we will not truly be able to fully relate, as we haven’t walked that mile in their sneakers, sandals or gumboots 🙂 Our hearts can go out to a friend easily, and compassion to a stranger, but everyone suffers in their own way, you can support, send love, pray that the universe eases their burden, make a ‘noice’ cup of tea, if your lucky… make them smile 🙂 For sure its more the wisdom of life ❤
    Dunno, do know, always thought a headache was a migraine…..till I got one!!

  9. an interesting and instightful take on empathy – you given me lots to think about. 🙂

  10. As one who has just lost her son to cancer (two months ago yesterday), I can say that I don’t need or want empathy. I hope none of my friends and acquaintances will have to go through the loss of a child and the pain and emptiness that loss brings. I very much appreciate their sympathy, however. It has been comforting to be treated with unusual care and concern by those who know of my grief. Recovery from grief is a deeply personal journey and no one can really help. It will take time and the journey will probably never be complete.

    Meanwhile, I hope your asthma will improve soon? Winter is coming on for you. Does that make it better?

    • jmgoyder says:

      I remember the post where you said your son had died which makes me appreciate your comment even more because this side of things hadn’t occurred to me. Why would anyone suffering this kind of private grief want the intrusion of empathy? I have been presumptuous in assuming empathy might help but maybe not. Thank you so much

  11. viveka says:

    Julie, I don’t think that he lacks of empathy .. only that he doesn’t know how to handle emotions and feelings. Also it’s something that comes with life experiences. Maybe you should talk more about how you feel about somethings – you shouldn’t have to tell to care about you and I know he does, but feelings so difficult at times to understand, show and master.

  12. I think that empathy is difficult for the most of the younger ones simply because when you’re young, invincibility and thinking that you have all the answers is the primary mindset fueling your existence. Unless you, as a young person, have lived very unfortunate circumstance, I think is almost beyond them to feel empathy, sympathy is much easier because you don’t have to put yourself in the other person’s place and experience to feel for the other. I think that an accumulation of life experiences gives you a much richer appreciation for how it may very well feel to be incapacitated or ill or struggling without finding any way out. It is so complicated but then there are days when everything is so simple, I like the days when everything is so very simple. Hugs Jules. 🙂

  13. Judith Post says:

    Ming strikes me as very practical, like our Nathan. And that’s a good thing. Nate misses the little things his brother notices, but if they come up in conversation (Nate hates “lectures” or “discussions”), and he takes the time to think about them, he sees them. It’s not a natural gift for him, but the deep caring is there, and he always tries to be fair. We all have different strengths. Subtlety might not be Ming’s? But he has plenty more.

  14. I hope your asthma is doing better. I can be empathic about that, because I’ve has asthma since childhood, at times very severe. For the past three years, I get allergy shots once a week. This has been the only thing that has helped control my asthma.

    So, my thoughts and prayers are with you. I hope you get some relief very soon.

  15. fgassette says:

    Food for thought.


  16. bulldog says:

    Tough question to which I will have to put my thinking cap on… but reading the comments there seems a certain feeling through out…

  17. I believe that ‘truest’ empathy does mean you can actually feel what the other person is feeling…having been there yourself most likely… I think ‘sympathy’ is more likely when you can see what someone is going through but can’t actually ‘feel’ it. And Ming could probably sympathize if he knew by you telling him how bad you are feeling….It takes time I think to even do that if you are not a ‘touchy feely’ person least going from my experience….but I know that it can be done….Diane

  18. I think it’s all been said but I also wonder if Ming feels things he is just not able to express in the way we expect. I’m sure he is processing the situation in his own way and just because we don’t see what we want to see, doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling it.

  19. dcwisdom says:

    Julie, I know that young Ming is learning empathy, or how to empathize, by going through this process, because when a friend of his loses his father because of a disease process, he will have great understanding and feeling towards his friend.
    There are many things in life that cannot be taught; they must be experienced. What we can teach our children is how to be kind, how to be self-aware, how to behave in various situations, etc. And still there will be many things in life we’ll never know about, because life reads like a mystery novel.
    I like the questions you raise. Great food for thought.

  20. lucewriter says:

    Gee, that’s a really good question. So basic, yet I’ve never heard it expressed like this before.

  21. I believe empathy is learned and some of us never get the knack. My husband for example. Most people don’t know the difference between empathy and sympathy, let alone practice either. I think for Ming a lot of his indifference comes from the fear of knowing. Thinking of you as ill as well as his dad could just be so overwhelming he pushes empathy away. I believe if you are a sympathetic/empathetic person, your child will be too. I have been surprised by the things I take for granted that my son doesn’t think of at all.

  22. FlaHam says:

    Julie, what a wonderful post, and what great comments. I am not smart enough to add to the conversation, but reading thru this I am getting a feeling for what my wife and daughter are going thru. This might be one of the most important posts (for me) I have seen since I started blogging. Take care, Bill

  23. Colline says:

    I think empathy is something that comes with age. As you get older, you realise how difficult certain situations are. When you are young, you cannot understand older people, or the responsibilities that affect our decisions. Ming doesn’t have to be your age to understand, but he does have to have seen and experienced life a little more.

    • jmgoyder says:

      Maybe the reason I’m confused is that when I was Ming’s age, I had almost too much empathy, but I was probably also a weirdo – ha! I definitely think you are right about his youth and youth in general though.

  24. janeslog says:

    Trying to understand someone’s situation is the first step in empathy. I work with a woman who has severe mobility problems as a result of a car crash some years ago. Before I did not appreciate the difficulties some people have in doing simple things like walking to the kitchen to
    make a cup of tea.

    Now I can understand the problems people with mobility problems have a bit more. I don’ t now get annoyed by someone holding me up in the street or on stairs because I now think it might be because they have walking difficulties. I also appreciate that not everyone is as fit as me.

    Some people have to deal with health problems or tragedies which I have never faced and I sometimes feel I cannot understand how they are feeling. In that case I ask myself how I would feel if I were suddenly struck down by a serious illness or other catastrophy and it gives me some idea of how others are feeling.

  25. robincoyle says:

    I think empathy comes from understanding So, it is a combination of learning what hard knocks feel like and then being able to translate that into what another person feels like when they are suffering.

  26. tootlepedal says:

    I think that it can be a bit rude to imagine that you can feel what another person feels. It may be possible to understand what it might be like and to feel sympathy. If I’m in trouble, I don;t want empathy, I want understanding (and help). If I don’t get it, I ask for it.

  27. I think the only way you can truly feel empathy for someone going through a life changing event is to have gone through something similar yourself. I find it very difficult to imagine what some people go through when I haven’t myself. As you get older, you get to go through similar life experiences and you can develop empathy. Well, at least that’s my personal opinion about it and I have no idea if this is true of everyone!

  28. terry1954 says:

    I wish I knew the answers. I have been told that not everyone can carry empathy. that it is something you can feel and own or not

  29. Empathy does not come naturally to many people but I think it is harder for the young as we age we learn and find it easier to put ourself in someone elses shoes and that is one of the things you need in order to feel empathy………….well I think it is………….also often unless you have exprienced something you are often unable to imagine what it feels like. I know I can not imagine what it would be like to lose a child or even a parent as I have not been through that type of pain. Ming is young and that has a lot to do with his inability to feel empathy for Anthony, that and the fact that most young people often think of no one but themselves most of the time

  30. diannegray says:

    I think empathy is something we’re born with that develops over the years. I’m also thinking Ming is probably hurting, but like most young men he just can’t show it…

  31. Lynda says:

    Let Ming run for a bit and get winded. Hand him a straw and tell him to pinch his nose shut, put the straw into his mouth, and breathe through it. He will get it. 😉

    Julie, perfecting Motherhood has it down regarding empathy via experience. Well said.

  32. Oh Jules… I know where of you are coming from. So odd in the irony here between your Ming and my youngest daughter.
    How “eerie” in a good way that the thoughts that have taken you to examine empathy with whose deep grief you are looking at is also a faction that I too have been examining.

    I am of a different nature lately.
    So much empathy I have been feeling for our mutual dear friend that I have been unable to follow devotedly for some time. I do not mean to displace our dear friend’s grief or your own by inserting mine.
    But…may I say it is just too painful at times?
    I feel the rawness of these emotions that leave me in puddles of tears as if the deep sadness has actually involved me. Been mine to own. And we both know it is not so.

    I have found this to be the case with any of the blogs I love and cherish with deepest affection., if there is pain I have had to be discerning about how much I absorb, because like a sponge I will take it all in, absorb it all.
    And then to comment? Forget about it. I could not see to type once I was fully experiencing & engulfed by the empathy after reading,

    I also have to wonder then if sometimes what seems like lack of empathy is really being numb. I wonder if those who seem immune to empathy are just maybe numb. Maybe comfortably numb.

    I wonder out loud because I believe this is my daughter’s case. It just all become too painful for her so she shut down and went numb. Of course she has no clue.

    Thank you Jules, your post opened the door for me to say a whole lot that I have needed.

    I apologize fr the short nevel it took me to say it all. So very cheky of me

    • Damn! Wandering fat finger of mine that hit enter before I was ready. As it should read; so very cheeky of me.

    • jmgoyder says:

      I was going to do a follow up post today because of what I discovered via the comments but I think I will wait until I’ve processed things better, including your valuable thoughts here. I understand exactly what you’re saying here and appreciate your insight which has me rethinking the conundrum again. Loveya BB/CC!

  33. I suspect we need life experiences to truly have empathy with others. I remember seeing a news item years ago, when we were working and well off, about a family on benefits. There was a big telly in the background. I felt scornful – they should sell that telly, or get off their backsides and start working.

    Now we are in that situation, I realise that it’s not so simple.

    Ming may not have empathy for his parents but, along the line, when he meets someone else in a similar situation, he will. I keep saying it but it’s true – he’s just a boy and he’s having a difficult time. It doesn’t excuse some of his behaviour, but it certainly explains it.

  34. Fergiemoto says:

    A good friend of mine battled cancer a couple of years ago. Through the whole thing, she talked and I listened with sympathy and compassion even though I have not had cancer myself. Also, very few people experience the health issues I have, and my same friend has listened, kept in touch through the whole time and has shown sympathy and compassion. My mother is an excellent listener and one of the most compassionate people I know. She has been key in helping me get through this and has helped much more than she realizes, even though she does not know what it feels like to go through what I’m experiencing.
    Having people truly listen and be genuinely concerned with my well being has been important through these struggles.

  35. bluebee says:

    Perhaps he feels it too much.

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