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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee

E and F

Empathy is a much-used word these days. We know we should be less judgemental and more empathetic. We know it because it’s taught in schools, it’s the basis of advertising campaigns and religious leaders, life coaches, spruikers and dare I even say ‘influencers’ all having a running commentary about how to be empathetic. They explain in detail the benefits of being an empath. So we constantly have the theory but there seems to be limited evidence of the practice.

Is empathy teachable? Is one born or made empathetic? What does it look like when it’s in action? Can you be empathetic selectively? Do we start empathetic and then have it beaten out of us in the race to be first, rich, perfect, powerful? I’ve never heard the answer, empathetic, when asking what do you want to be when you grow up.

I suspect some, particularly in the public gaze, might think nodding with a sad face is empathy. Flying the flag for a cause might be close. Tut-tutting the great horrors facing human existence is at least feeling something. But is it empathy?

It is defined, in a simple way, as understanding someone else’s perspective and sensing what someone might be feeling or thinking. Which is okay but not particularly useful unless these empathetic thoughts and feelings change our course of action. It is not about changing the other but changing ourselves. If we see injustice, bullying, despair, harm and suffering it is we who must change how we move forward. It is not enough to throw a coin into the bucket but to find a way to eliminate the need for anyone to hold out the bucket.

There are many beautiful and motivating quotes about empathy. They link the need for compassion, action, listening and change in living empathetically.

A personal favourite links empathy to travelling into someone else’s pain like you are entering an unknown country. You walk softly, curiously, respectfully and listen for the cues to show how this world is different from your own. What are its customs and limitations? What can you bring and in some ways what can you take away?

A compassionate world where empathy is the norm must start with each of us eliminating our blindness to, and our disregard of others’ despair.

We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.

Carl Rogers (Psychologist)

And then there is F. I know where some minds might go. Fear, frustration, flippancy,

facetiousness, flustered, fatigued and yes well and truly feckless.

But I’m going with forgiveness. It is another tough one. And equally hard to put into practice sometimes. It is easy to forgive the small infractions because they don’t really matter to us on that visceral level where the big hurts live. The big betrayals, the acts of cruelty and the mercilessness of others live deep in our psyches, and they make it extremely hard to exonerate the dealers of these deeds. But I suspect it is here that forgiveness resides in its highest form.

And some exceptional humans can forgive the greatest slings and arrows, and I admire them. I aspire to be them. I know that hanging on to insult, outrage and personal hurt is only poisoning one person. And it isn’t the doer of the deed. I’ve been more revenge orientated under the worst of the hurts. Not enacted revenge but deeply felt and imagined. Behind the calm face and impassiveness is a raging volcanic desire to bring doom! But as a civilised human I will not cause anyone physical harm, but I have not yet found myself not able to elevate myself to forgive. As pointed out by a learned friend, not wanting to punch someone anymore is not forgiveness. I am a work in progress.

But how extraordinary must it be to say I forgive you and actually mean it. To feel it within the centre of your being. For all the anger and despair to be lifted because you stop drinking the poison of your own fury.

Perhaps we are all works in progress.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

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