To Empathize or Not to Empathize? That is the Question!

photo credit: Sean MacEntee

photo credit: Sean MacEntee

Earlier this week I spoke with a parishioner who informed me that she would no longer attend the support group conducted at the church.  She told me that the group did not really provide the forum for the discussion of her current need.  She boldly said, “I need a man!”  She proceeded to share with me her overwhelming feelings of loneliness since the death of her husband several years ago.  Further, she was explicit in describing the type of relationship and corresponding relationship dynamics that were important to her (quite reminiscent of the positive aspects of her marriage).  She was in search of that man who would enable her to recapture the energy of her marriage and regain her sense of self as had been developed throughout her marriage.  In short, she wanted to move forward on her terms that included all the trappings of her past.

I will be the first to admit that it makes total sense for us to seek those things that have enabled us to feel good in the past.  It makes sense that we would allow our sensibilities to be driven by past experiences of euphoria and self-satisfaction.  And it makes sense that we would be attracted to people who may seem to fit into our equation of happiness and even our notion of love.  What doesn’t make sense is any expectation that we may project upon these potential friends or lovers to wholeheartedly engage us in our needs and desires.  We don’t mean any harm.  We don’t mean to be intentionally intrusive.  And we certainly don’t mean to do anything that would cast a shadow of scariness upon ourselves such that the other would run screaming into the night!  But unfortunately, more often than not, that happens.  And we wonder about the reason as to why anyone would reject a person as ourselves who brings as much whatever to the table as we do.  And therein lies the problem.  The table is so filled with your whatever that there is little if any room for the other’s whatever.

Being in a healthy relationship requires that both individuals allow space for the other to be who they are.  A space that allows for both beauty and brokenness.  A space that honors vulnerability and affirms personal growth.  The ability to empathize with another requires that we place our needs within a perspective that informs rather than determines our navigation through our relationships.  Building bridges of empathy to the other takes time, energy, and a lot of self-reflection.  But each moment spent in building empathic bridges is worth it.  It not only enables others to feel validated, but also potentially expands our personal worldview having been invited into another way of being as shared by others.  So, in the midst of feeling frustrated and overwhelmed with the absence of fulfilling relationships in your life, reflect upon, “to empathize or not to empathize?  That is the question!”  And then remember, “to empathize!” for that is the answer.

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