A word on empathy

I tend not to read the newspaper, which I know makes me sound disinterested or ignorant; or maybe both. But the only reason is that I still tend to absorb most of the important developments through other people and media. And I prefer to receive my news this way. However, I must admit that every now and then, I do come across reading that I find truly worthy. And, since I am already making confessions, I'll divulge that these are usually passed on from Jared; an avid newspaper reader.

Yesterday he handed me the iPad and said there was an article I might be interested in. "It's about empathy," he said. I was in.

It was an article in The Washington Post from June 15th of this year, written by Richard Morgan. It's title read 'Artificial concern for people in pain won't stop suicide. Radical empathy might.' I don't think I've ever resonated so profoundly with a statement in my life. These words speak directly to me.

Reading the article got me thinking about empathy and how people care; particularly in situations as frightening and fraught as suicide. It's not even that people pretend to care, it's that they think they are caring, but they aren't. Not in the way that will make someone truly feel supported. I'm not trying to cast blame. Not at all. I think it's an inherent problem, a language problem. One that needs to change. Morgan's article byline even said "Our language about suffering is suffused with cliches, and they don't help."

I ran into this roadblock early in my support of Jared. Words and statements that I thought were the right ones, were suddenly falling short. And even hurting him more. That's why it's so critical that we reframe what caring language is, and that we equip everyone with words that they know they can use safely and confidently to support someone.
When I surveyed over 250 people earlier this year, I asked them to select statements from a list that they would find helpful if they were going through a tough time. The list included both cliches and language infused with pathos. Unsurprisingly, the cliches rated lowest; sometimes even at zero.

In Morgan's article, he discusses his own suicidal ideation which, for me, lends so much credibility to what he is saying about our need for more, real empathy. He knows, he has been there. The most important insights I gleaned from the article, that I want to share with you, are as follows:

Don't swat someones emotional angst away with meaningless statements. Morgan uses the example of someone trying to express their loneliness, only to be told the exact opposite - "You're not alone!". It's meaningless when someone feels genuinely lonely. Saying they are not will not suddenly make them feel less alone. It's like telling an anxious person not to worry. Or someone who is drowning, to just come up for breath. We need to let them know that even if they are lonely, that's okay. We will be right next to them as they work their way through this lonely period. It's okay to be lonely, it will not kill you. We will help you through this. Morgan says, "Empathy is not a cure for loneliness. It is merely a commitment to assert that other people's loneliness matters, that it is seen and heard and felt as much as possible."

The second is that being an empathetic person doesn't involve a switch. If you genuinely want to support someone, that support should be there every day. There is always an influx of support at a most critical time, but all pain lives on longer. It hangs over their lives like a cloud and this is when people need it most. They are most vulnerable in the weeks, months, years after tragedy and trauma. You can never be too empathetic, but you can be apathetic. Morgan says, "empathy should be a way of life and love; it should be our other oxygen." It's not enough to just say you care, or say you're there. You need to show it. You need to find words that truly show it. As Morgan highlights, "we need each other desperately all the time. That's what society means. That's what civilisation is."

I have always maintained that without empathy, there is no humanity. And I will continue sharing this message.


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