Friday, October 26, 2012

Empathy





















A few months ago I received a phone call from Seth. His voice was quivering. I could tell something was wrong immediately.

"Jacy" he said.

"Remember my friends? The ones I've told you about? The really cool dentist and his awesome wife?"

Oh no, I thought.

"They just found out she has brain cancer. Brain cancer. She's 33. She has 5 kids (ages 8-6 months old). She's been given a number... an amount of time... They had no idea anything was wrong... I am sick to my stomach."

My insides felt an immediate burn. I remember exactly where I was that day.

I didn't even know this woman or her family personally, but after I hung up the phone with Seth, I called my mom. I told her everything I knew- about a perfect stranger. We talked about the sadness and confusion and everything that must be happening in her mind and her family's too.

I thought about her often.

***

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to meet this really cool dentist and his awesome wife (Matt and Jen). As we were driving to the restaurant, eager to spend time with them, Seth said,

"I haven't seen or talked to either one since I learned of the diagnosis from a friend... what do I say? Do I start the night off with 'We are so sorry to hear of the news...'? I just feel so bad... it's so hard!"

I quickly said,

"All we can do is speak from our hearts. Both of us. We know of her diagnosis... she knows of her diagnosis... we need to be open and honest and genuine."

But I didn't want to screw up, saying the wrong thing. I didn't want to avoid the topic, pretending that I didn't know (seeming uncaring or uninterested), but I also didn't want to barrel in there acting like I knew everything (seeming insensitive and overbearing and totally ignorant).

I have been at the receiving end of both, even as a betrayed/divorced woman, and I'm honestly not sure which one is worse.

So, I decided that I'd just be myself. I didn't worry about what to say... or what not to say... I just let it go... and I went in ready to meet a new friend whom I'd heard many wonderful things about- cancer or not. After all, she wasn't nervous to meet me because she was sick, so why would I be nervous to meet her? Her illness does not define her; just as my being a betrayed, divorced and single mom doesn't define me.

When I saw this vibrant woman, I was truly taken back. You would NEVER know that she was dealing with brain cancer... that she was enduring the scary reality that she is.... that she was literally fighting for her very life. In that very moment, she was fighting for her life. But the smile on her face beamed, her eyes were bright, and she was kind, inquisitive, thoughtful and just down right sincere.

Soon after we meet, she mentioned her condition. I told her that I already knew and that she had been in my thoughts and prayers. I told her I didn't know how she was maintaining such a positive attitude and demeanor through it all and she said with the most genuine smile,

"I have to. For my kids and my husband. I have to."

And then we just talked. I told her about my trials (so minimal in comparison) and we talked of hers. I got a little teary eyed, she did too. And then we talked and laughed about a lot of fun stuff.  She was a new friend... and I was so happy to get to know her better... and I'm so looking forward to getting to know her even better.

***

Ever since that night, not only has this remarkable woman been on my mind, I've been thinking about empathy and how powerful it is.

And then I read some great stuff from a wonderful book called "I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What People Will Think" to "I Am Enough" by Brene Brown.

Empathy is a powerful ability

Empathy is so much easier said than done.

Empathy is different than sympathy.

Empathy is so much more than just words. IT TAKES HARD WORK.

Empathy is a skill.

Empathy is more than sensitivity.

Too often we think that if we haven't been in someone else's shoes exactly, we shouldn't say anything at all. We don't know what to say or how to respond. We feel awkward. We are afraid to mess up and hurt feelings and offend and so, we say things (or don't say anything at all) that actually skip over the reality of the difficulty. And then it does become weird... because as a result, there is this big elephant in the room that is only weird to you, because you make it that way.

Three years ago, I wouldn't have had the slightest clue as of what to say to someone who was newly divorced, or who was grieving the loss of a child, or who was dealing with addiction in their marriage, or who was just diagnosed with something as serious as cancer. The anxiety of screwing up and saying the wrong thing kept me from acknowledging a lot of important times in people's lives. And before I knew it, I had missed my chance to be compassionate which, in turn, kept me from building stronger, more meaningful relationships. 

Now, however, I feel so much more connected with the power of empathy. I'm not the best at it and I am still learning how to be skilled at it, but because of what I have experienced personally, I feel like the ability to empathize with other's has become more natural. Now, instead of diminishing the reality of someones feelings by avoiding it all together, changing the subject, or walking away, I am figuring out how to dig in deep so that I can open my heart and be more comfortable with the things that I don't always comprehend.

That being said, don't just reach out to and confide in those whom have had similar experiences as you. If we all did this, we would all be very much alone- limiting ourselves only to what we know and what we're comfortable with. Life experiences are like fingerprints; no two are exactly alike. But together, if we can honestly learn to have empathy, we can connect. And when we connect with compassion, it says to someone "I can hear this. This is hard, but I can be in this space with you." And when we are there, in that vulnerable place, we can not only feel accepted, but we can find a true and safe sense of belonging.


Empathy is the the ability to see, hear and feel the unique world of the other.



**There is so much more I'd like to write about this but I can't do it all in one post. Watch for other posts within this topic like: comparison, shame, things to say and things to avoid saying, sympathy vs empathy, etc.  This will be the feature for the next few Friday's to come and I am so excited about it. The "My Name Is" series is done for now... just taking a little break from that... a big THANK YOU to all the women who participated. You've changed my life!

** If you hope to learn more about and support JEN, she has a blog HERE. Please check it out, reach out and send her your love. As you know, we are all in this together and just because you don't know her personally or may not be able to relate exactly, we are all sisters! I'm certain she'd appreciate your prayers and love and support as she continues on this journey.

9 comments:

  1. Jacy! I absolutely know what you mean! Going through this heartbreak and healing has made me so much more sensitive to others. A friend of mine from college lost her husband to the war 2 weeks ago. She has 3 beautiful kids and when I learned of this I felt her loss in my core. I think of her everyday and I feel her pain even though I have experienced a different kind of death. Empathy is really a core value that we develop.

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  2. What a gift to wake up to, J!! You know I can relate to this. Everyone says that God won't give you more than you can handle, but I actually think that if you draw near to Him in your trials, He endows you with this extra grace if you seek it. It looks like that is what is going on with Jen, and I can see that happening with Brian. And from reading your blog, I know its what happened with you. Thank you for the resource that I know Jen's blog will be for me and my Brian! I just love this, and you!
    ~L

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  3. This is a great post! Thank you for sharing your experience. My husband has brain cancer so I can totally relate. He is 34 now, 32 when dx. Having your insight from the outside looking in is wonderful. It was very brave of you to NOT let your fears or mind keep you away. We experience that a lot especially with family. And my husband is very isolated as he cannot drive due to seizures yada yada yada...but I tell ya what if there were more people like you in the world, it'd be a better place!

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  4. Beautiful words, Jacy!!! I think trials (all kinds) come to us with gifts in their hands. One of those gifts, I think, is increased empathy for others. Weird how that works. Thank you for your sweet words in the comments yesterday. Jenny has been so sweet, too. You and Jenny and your Mom just RADIATE warmth and love and friendship. :)

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  5. Jace, so sad for Jen. Its such a small world. My best friend, Vanessa, is Matt's step-niece! They are the same age. So we hung out several times with Matt and his friends throughout those middle school and high school years. He's a great guy! Did Matt and Jen name their son after your Seth? Thanks for sharing Jace! I hope you're surviving all the stress of wedding and moving! What an exciting time for you!

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  6. Wow, my heart is heavy but also full of love. I am sorry to hear about your friend, Jen. That is hard news. But I do love this post! It's such a good reminder that we are all in this journey together, and we can be there for each other and help each other. As you talked about empathy, a person came to my mind. A person that I emailed so long ago, who I had never met, but I needed to tell someone about what I was going through, and she seemed like she may understand. She replied with such a massive amount of empathy and understanding and validation, and I can honestly say that it was one of the most impacting and meaningful encounters I've ever had with ANYONE. It was YOU! I have saved your email because of how much I just needed someone in the world to feel my pain with me, and I felt like you genuinely did. I felt like I mattered for the first time in a long time. So if anyone truly understands the word "empathy," it is most certainly you. Thank you Jacy! I love this post!!!! I even looked up that book by Bene Brown, and it looks phenomenal! Thank you thank you thank you. For everything. I love you.

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  7. Your so smart. I wish I was as smart and empathetic as you. Even though you are a BETRAYED and divorced wife. Not just divorced, but BETRAYED too, you are still so smart and empathetic. Im jealous. :)

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    Replies
    1. Sounds pretty sarcastic. You know it's all up to you, you could choose to be smart and empathetic. Good luck.

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