At some point we’ve likely all decried the emptiness of well intended phrases meant to comfort someone when they are experiencing a difficult time. “I’ll be prayin’ for ya”, someone says. And we thank them dutifully.
I don’t wish to rehash that dynamic. Rather, because of something that happened this past week I had some new thoughts about empathy that reveal how insidious a pastime empathy really is.
Recall a couple of months ago a colleague of mine died of a rare illness, from stricken to dead in five weeks. And I was knocked off my feet. During the three weeks of hospice I liaised between the family and my employer and did some other practical things that I thought were helpful to the wife of my colleague. An understandable couple of months passed before receiving her thank you note this week. It humbled and blessed me and magnified my own sense of being undeserving.
Over the next couple of days I got to re-experience the grief at full strength.
This nagged at me. I prayed about it… a lot. I tend to feel inadequate and ill equipped in crisis like that one.
I was reminded, providentially, of another time some fifteen or twenty years ago when the death of the mother of some kids that attended the little Christian school my kids attended crashed into our lives. There was some practical thing I could do but was not sure if it would be helpful. But I offered the dad that I would pick up his dirty laundry weekly and clean it all in the dry cleaner we owned, then return it to his home. I did so for several months until the man convinced me it was OK to stop.
Some years passed and we ran into that man and his boys at a church we visited. We had one of my wife’s sisters with us. The man came across the room and hugged me aggressively, not some little should thing or a quick slap on the back hug, but a squeezing rocking affair. I was then left as flummoxed as I was this week with the note. More, I will not forget that my sister in law remarked something about how I “helped people”.
Believe me folks. I am not your neighborhood altruist. Not even close.
I occurred to me when I reread the note’s reference to the “hands and feet of Jesus”, not that I was being that and good on me, rather what occurred to me was that an instance of deploying hands and feet is worth more than the sum of global empathy throughout all history and until the end of time.
Empathy has a reward feedback loop for those addicted to it. It also has hand and feet avoidance mechanisms, including its own subtle vocabulary. The above example of telling someone they will be prayed for, the expression “I’m there for you” and its expanded more honest version, “I’m there for you if you want to talk” .
Nothing excites the empathy addict more than being the conversational support for someone else. The empathy addict, during a dry spell, will even generate things for which she needs support.
The empathy addict that is nearing an addiction crisis will even start to let empathy affect other parts of their lives. They will volunteer as a helper then be unable to do (hands and feet) the work as needed, begging off due to some empathy generating reference to an issue someone in the family or circle of friends is having. After all, the addict is the essential support structure for that suffering person and that takes priority over hands and feet stuff like volunteering.
This juxtaposition of empathy wallowing and actually doing physical things to help is not meant to suggest that being a listener is not a hands a feet action. It is meant to point out the exploitation of the fact that listening is doing in order to make listening a source for empathogasms.
Finally, this has nothing whatsoever to do with me and the small references to self in the examples. I’m not being falsely modest. I really am not an altruist. It blesses me that twice in 15 years I stood out as such, but doing so means I have to scale the cliffs of my nature which is just not so inclined.