Empathy is the modern-technical term for what our ancestors called “walking in the shoes of another.”
Some experts believe empathy is only possible when a person has experienced what another is going through now. Empathy cannot happen in a person who has never experienced what another is experiencing.
Sympathy can happen though. I can sympathize with a hungry child, but I’ve never been a hungry child, so I can’t feel it, but I can still give money. I can still be a good person.
Empathy happens when we’ve already experienced what another is experiencing now. A person who has been hungry as a child can do even more for hungry children than I can. I can send them money or food, but the empathic person has a super-power to truly speak to that child in ways that can bring deeper comfort to the fears and anger and hopelessness that I can only imagine might be present in a child who doesn’t know if he or she is going to live through the week.
Empathy is why recovering addicts are also the best recovery councilors. They not only know the science behind addiction, they know what the addict is thinking and feeling.
PTSD survivors should stick together
People with PTSD really need to connect with other people who have PTSD. No one else can really share in the experience in ways that can help the survivor feel connected to someone of like-mind. People who don’t have it, may truly want to help, but really only know that PTSD is a condition that makes people react to things. Their ability to help is there–but its limited. Those who have PTSD may personally know the ghosts who are now attacking another PTSD survivor, and therefor can share in the experience and can work with those ghosts in helpful ways. PTSD survivors have experienced the fears of PTSD, and know first-hand what the sleepless nights feel like, and how the triggers come from nowhere—even years or decades after the trauma. Only PTSD survivors have ridden the PTSD-Bi-Polar-Coaster and know the inner workings of the out-of-control mood swings that people who don’t have it absolutely can’t grasp.
How to be a good person
In my world, good is defined as anything we do to connect people with the social fabric of all God’s souls, while bad is defined as anything we do to hurt, humiliate or isolate people from the social fabric of all God’s souls.
Mother Theresa used say “Love not put into action is only a word.” Either way, empathy and sympathy are both good, as long as they produce in us a desire to do something helpful for someone else.
So challenge yourself to love someone today. Go on line and donate a few bucks to a reputable charity that feeds kids in your town. Smile and say hi to someone in a store today just so that person knows he or she is not invisible today. And if you have a heart for any specific issues, maybe because you are a survivor of some undesirable event, then consider using your empathy as a tool for individual or social healing. Consider giving of yourself to others who need to know that you know what they are feeling.
Every day brings another opportunity to give something simple to someone in need. So each of us can do something good every day. Whether its rooted in empathy or in sympathy, connecting with others is the root definition of how to be a truly good person.