Let me know if this has never happened to you. You tell a friend you had a nasty cold last week, she tells you that her boss and her uncle did too, there must be something in the air. You tell your other friend that you had an argument with your boyfriend, she tells you that she also had troubles with her mother, it seems that mercury is in retrograde and it makes communication hard. You tell yet another friend that you lost your job, he tells you that surely the universe has better plans for you.
Do you experience something between irritation, sadness or a sense of being utterly alone when these sort of things happen to you? Maybe you are a very understanding person and know deep down that your friends have very good intentions when they answer you like that, and so you can appreciate their efforts to bring some relief to your suffering.
In my experience these sort of interactions rarely lead to a deeper exploration of the situation at hand. Once we seem to have identified the cause of our suffering we tend to stop going any further. It is rare that someone, on hearing about our problems, might say: "And how is that for you?" or "What´s really bothering you about this?". We seem to have a predilection for problem solving from a logical, analytical stand point, we like to understand, classify, organize and explain our experiences in an orderly and seameless fashion. It is unquestionable that this does bring some kind of relief. Understanding and making sense of our world is an absolutely essential process of the human psyche and it provides us the ground on which to stand on. Essential as it is, this process in not, in and of itself, sufficient to bring a real sense of peace and completion. We often overlook the fact that besides understanding our experiences with our intelect we also need to integrate them through our emotional and physical selves. This is a lot less straightforward than explaining them intelectually. It is a rather messy, incoherent and, frankly, difficult to sustain process. Our emotions don't simply want to be analyzed, they want to be felt, they call for a deeper kind of understanding, a rather experiencial, multi-layered understanding that often begins with a confusing fog and only slowly begins to unravel. Or emotions often need time and silence to unfold, they need a break from the insiting question "but why?". They need to be left in peace and simply allowed to exist for a while before we can begin to decipher their messages. This is unsettling and uncomfortable. Generally this is the moment when we begin to think that "things happen for a reason" and this seem to offer some kind of hope. We are very good at making up these "reasons", sometimes we even think that the simple notion that there must be a reason is enough, even though we may never know what it is.
I believe that there is a reason for all this reason seeking. When we understand (or think we understand) the cause of an event, we gain a sense of agency over it. We essentially believe that we can control events by understanding the underlying factors that cause them and this is certainly true, in most cases. Even when these reasons are not offering us direct control over things, like in the case of astrological or religious explanations, at least we feel secure that we don't live in a random universe where things happen just because. That is the worst possible thing that could happen to a human: randomness. We absolutely need to believe that we live in a world that makes sense or our sense of survival is at stake. How could anyone survive in a random world? We wouldn't be able to plan our actions or predict their outcomes. We couldn't keep ourselves safe, we would be utterly vulnerable. That is precisely how we feel when we simply allow our emotions to be, we feel undefended.
Although it is unquestionable that we do need to have a sense of agency over our lives and we do well to try and understand the world we live in, I also believe it is an essential part of the process of maturation to come to accept our ultimate vulnerablility and stop defending ourselves from it by creating explanations for the things that happen in our lives. We simply don't know if there is a reason why our mother got cancer or our partner left suddenly to sail across the seven seas. and for all the efforts we may make at keeping everything under control and safe our cat will still die and our hair will fall off, as poet Ellen Bass tenderly points out in her poem "Relax". We have a lot to gain from the uncomfortable experience of learning to face our vulnerability in a world that keeps its explanations mostly to itself. When we relax our effort to understand and explain we suddenly can allow ourselves to be, to experience, to know what it's like to live what we are living. Instead of frantically looking for the answer, we can sit down and admit we have no clue and still, here we are, alive. It is remarkable how this can open up new possibilities for a different kind of understanding, a fuller, deeper sense of being alive and to partake directly in the workings of a world in which we are quite clearly not the master-minds. It isn't necesarrily a path that shields us form pain but, since this is unavoidable anyway, it affords us a sense of true connection with the experience of being human. I wonder if this, in some sense, can become just as important to us as our need for security. We don't have to fall in to a nihilistic or cynical attitude either, that, in my view, is still a defense from the experience of vulnerability. We can begin to explore the boundaries between what is in our hands to shape and form and what simply requires that we sit a while with our hands in our lap and feel what it's like not to be in charge, trying to accept that confusion and bewilderment are inescapable experiences of being human.
Empathy is a buzz word these days, it seems to have found its way in a wide variety of contexts and there is a whealth of information about it. Empathy is at the core of NonViolent Communicaction and also it has a fundamental role in Inter Personal Neuro Biology, making it one of the subjects that I most frequently talk or write about. I have created this little booklet to serve as an introduction and, hopefully, clear guide as to what empathy is and isn't, as I regularly encounter misconceptions about it. Even when we understand it correcty theoretically, empathy still proves to be a skill that needs regular practice and commitment in our world. It is my hope that this booklet will serve to foster the development of a more empathic culture and society.