Sitting in the unbearable heat that racked the East Coast, a man has plenty of time to think, and hallucinate. It was quite an experience being part of a weather anomaly that many say will not be seen again in our lifetime. The Washington D.C area was hit like a freight train, knocking out power to 1.5 million homes. Among other things, this experience became a lesson in the meaning of empathy.
I’m not sure most people understand what empathy really is, so let’s start with a definition: “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
That sounds simple enough; understand, be sensitive, and try and feel what someone else feels. We have all experienced hot days and nights, but we usually don’t have to sleep in it night after night. I found that some of this empathy, which was aimed at making me feel better, was actually making me feel worse.
“So sorry to hear about what’s going on up there. I lost my power for a couple of hours and it was really hot.”
I became keenly aware of those that told me they knew what I was experiencing because they read about it somewhere, or they lost power for a day, or couldn’t believe how hot it was some other time in their lives. I decided to Google the question, “What’s the opposite of empathy?” The most common reply was, “unsympathetic.” Look at the irony here; in an attempt to understand, and be sensitive, I was feeling the complete opposite! I began to think about all the times I had plowed in to finish someone else’s story of struggle with a vague reference of my own.
I bring this story to you today to remind us of this unusual message. We don’t have to rush to tell others we know how someone feels because we’ve had an experience that has some vague similarities. We can be empathetic by just listening, caring, and allowing others to simply articulate their issues.
I received a text from my friend Ron, who lives about six hundred miles away in Georgia. He wrote: “Let me know if you need anything that can’t be bought there. I am willing to help my friend any way I can.” A simple text, but it sure was meaningful. I won’t delete it for a while.