It is with disbelief at how fast time went by and much reflection about the semester that I write this blog post.
After weeks of being both intentionally and unintentionally witnessing aspects of Middlebury, I have come to realize a few things about the human capacity of empathy as well as about feelings in general. I have compiled them into a list.
- People are afraid of burdening other people with their problems. They are afraid of inducing an unwanted empathy in their peers for fear of redistributing the heavy weight of personal emotional problems. However, these intensely empathetic conversations are the very ones that create strong interpersonal relationships.
- Reassuring touches on the shoulder go a long way. People I know who initiate casual physical touches in this way spread a feeling of warmth and comfort- physicality is a very tangible and effective form of relaying empathy.
- Unwavering eye contact is the best form of active and empathetic listening. People don’t do it enough, and they are always pleasantly surprised when you are very engaged in conversations.
- Smiling never hurt anybody.
These are some of the tangible observations I have made about manifestations of empathy this semester. I think it is important to think about not just feeling empathy, but a way to make the empathy active and productive.
I think that many, many people on this campus are quietly struggling with mental health. Therefore, I think there are numerous people who could empathize with each other, but these conversations are not being initiated. There is a fear of becoming vulnerable and a fear of exposing internal battles. However, this fear is impeding the potential for these wonderfully intimate personal relationships as I listed as #1. If we could break down these walls, by doing even little things like making more engaged eye contact or giving more meaningful touches in passing, this community could become a much more actively empathetic and supportive place.
I have discovered my new favorite form of empathy: beautifully written quotes. Often, it is hard to put words to feelings. Conveniently, this is exactly what famous authors specialize in. I love finding a line of poetry or an excerpt from a book that perfectly articulates the support or emotion that I would want to convey but cannot find the words myself. Authors are incredibly emotionally intelligent. It is both relieving and awe-inducing to realize, by reading these excerpts, that there are people existing in other places and at other times who felt the same things I am feeling today. That is the most tangible form of empathy I have encountered.
My observations of how empathy operates in humanity are only beginning. I think that these observations are the kind that grow and evolve throughout life. I have come to the conclusion that empathy is the means to a meaningful life. Life is short, life is hard, life is full of curveballs. The most grounding thing you can do for yourself, and for others, is realize that there are other people feeling the same feelings that you are. Feelings are the level at which every human can connect- and that is something that is incredibly valuable.
I have started reading more poetry lately- particularly Mary Oliver. I started asking people if they have ever heard of her, and almost every person has said that Wild Geese is one of their favorite poems. Every time I reread this poem, I wonder about the underlying message that so many people seem to connect with.
|You do not have to be good.
|You do not have to walk on your knees
|for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
|You only have to let the soft animal of your body
|love what it loves.
|Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
|Meanwhile the world goes on.
|Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
|are moving across the landscapes,
|over the prairies and the deep trees,
|the mountains and the rivers.
|Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
|are heading home again.
|Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
|the world offers itself to your imagination,
|calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
|over and over announcing your place
|in the family of things.
In the wake of the horrible Paris attacks, social media has become an incredible source of worldwide empathy. People have the choice to temporarily change their profile picture to include an image of France’s flag. Statuses flood news feeds with articles and pledges of support for France. Facebook even created the option to be “marked safe” if you are someone who is currently living in Paris so that friends and family will know you are okay. The news about the attacks spread like wildfire, and I can’t help but think about how this age of technology has vastly increased our ability to feel global empathy (although some may beg the question- are technological shows of empathy truly empathetic?).
I have been thinking a lot about the distinction between empathy and sympathy. I know empathy to mean the ability o really feel what another person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, is the ability to understand what the other person is feeling and then exhibit the appropriate supportive response. I think that empathy is one of the greatest qualities possessed by humans, but I wonder if there are times when it would be more beneficial to have sympathy rather than empathy. Too much empathy could result in the dissolution of the individual and could result in a decline in self care. In this way, it can be good to practice sympathy as a form of self protection. On the other hand, there are many instances in this world when people are not motivated enough to help (as Singer would argue about global poverty), and in these cases more empathy is warranted. How should you toe the line between these two values, and in what situations should you choose to lean one way or the other?
Driving by myself is one of the most therapeutic things I do, and I think that is largely in part because it provides the opportunity to listen to music without many distractions. As I was listening to music in my three hour drive home this weekend, I thought about how amazing it is that musicians are able to communicate complex feelings and experiences that most people can relate to. In this way, music is an incredibly powerful outlet for empathy.
This is one of my favorite poems and I think it relates very well to this theme of empathy:
Masks by Shel Silverstein
She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.
Living in a two room double has taught me a lot about incorporating someone else’s schedule into your own life, and about being a respectful person. My roommate Anna (she is in this class and also is a bee!) and I have a great dynamic. It is wonderful to come back to Painter and unfailingly have a friend to chat about your day with. We had our first sort-of-fight-but-not-really-fight last night; I had a couple friends over that ended up staying and talking pretty late, and it turns out the wall between our rooms is much thinner than we had thought. Despite the fact that I kept her up until an ungodly hour, Anna and I were able to have a conversation and laugh about it. There are little ways in your day here to show empathy, and one of them is being understanding when your roommate has very chatty people who will not leave her room until a very late hour. What a pal.
I learned about these neurons that everyone has- called mirror neurons- that are supposedly the source of empathy in the brain. Here is how they work: if someone else smiles, the neurons in my brain that normally would cause me to smile start firing. In this way, you experience empathy by having the same processes go on in your brain that are going on in the other person’s brain. This is a really interesting concept to me because it means that you cannot truly understand how another person is feeling without experiencing it yourself (literally). This operates even on the most basic level (such as a smile as I mentioned before).