Seeking Empathy

em·pa·thy
noun \ˈem-pə-thē\
Ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. (my thanks to http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy for the definition)

Today in my Intro to Theater class we performed skits written and created by ourselves entitled “Me”. The skits were profoundly moving, causing tears and sobs throughout. It was as if each person had poured out their heart and soul to the class, which indeed they had. I learned things about my classmates I never knew or suspected. I felt honored that my friends had chosen to reveal such personal things to me. I also felt guilty.

Nearly everyone performed about the dark sides of themself. Certain images stand out to me: a girl writing a letter on the window to her dead father, promising never to forget him, making him promise never to forget her; a boy stuffing pictures of the evils of the world into a jar labeled “Bad Things” and throwing it away; a girl repeating the same line again and again, “Mother, why doesn’t anybody like me?; a girl, one of the kindest and most talented I know, saying “I am an accident”. People spoke of masks, abandonment, death, anxiety, loss, self harm, feeling trapped, alone, afraid, unwanted. And I felt guilty.

Guilt is something I have begun to struggle with more and more as I grow up. My friends talk about all the horrible, unbelievable, traumatizing events in their past, and all I can think is I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be their friend because I haven’t experienced nearly as many evils as they have. My problems seem trivial in comparison. I am not worthy because, as I haven’t gone through what they have, I cannot adequately understand them. My problems aren’t huge, and therefore they aren’t really problems at all.

Whenever I start on this track of thinking, I bring to mind a quote from a book by Julia Alverez called Finding Miracles. “Nothing is small if the heart feels it.” I have problems just like anyone else does, even though they’re smaller than those my friends have. Maybe my father didn’t abandon me, but I have still felt alone and unwanted. Maybe I wasn’t severely bullied in school, but I have still felt the need to wear a metaphorical mask instead of being myself. I have felt grief, loss, pain, loneliness, sorrow, and fear without having to experience the horrors some of my friends have had to go through. I can empathize without having been traumatized. I’m an actress, it’s what I do.

I always think of empathy as putting oneself in another’s shoes. In the definition given above, empathy is described as the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place in order to understand them. It does not say the person needs to actually be in that place. I can be there for my friends without having gone through what they have. I seek to adequately understand them, but maybe the word “adequately” is subjective. I understand their emotions, if not their experiences. That’s adequate enough, isn’t it?

I’d like to end this post with a few lines from “Light”, a song from the musical Next to Normal.
“Day after day
Give me clouds and rain and gray
Give me pain, if that’s what’s real
It’s the price we pay to feel
The price of love is loss
But still we pay
We love anyway.”

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