If someone you loved had fallen down a well what would you do to rescue them? Would you call for help and wait with them, offering words of encouragement until the emergency services arrived, or would you take more of a participatory role in the rescue, and go and find a rope that you would then use to hoist them out of the hole? Regardless of which one of these approaches you favoured, one thing that you would probably not do is jump into the well to be with them. Taking this step you would not be able to help them much. Being just as stuck as they are, you would also require the assistance of skilled helpers before you and your loved one could be returned safely to the surface.
Adding to your loved one’s problem, you have not really done the right thing by them even though your intentions may have been good. Better would they have been served if you remained in a position of strength at the top of the well. Using this strength for their benefit, they can rise up and beyond the circumstances that previously immobilized and isolated them. Grabbing their hand and pulling them to freedom they reap the rewards of empathy which promise much more than any act of sympathy can hope to deliver.
Although they are often confused for each other, empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. While the latter focuses on the negative emotions that one is experiencing, the former focuses on understanding the person and taking the journey with them. Sometimes this is extraordinarily difficult because we may not have experienced what another has. Limited in this respect, we are however capable of opening our hearts to enter the inner world of another. Doing this in the spirit of unconditional love, acceptance and understanding, we can lend others our strength, faith and resilience, and help them to overcome in moments of weakness or pain.
Like the hero who throws down a rope and pulls their loved one from the well, we help others to heal their hurts when we care enough to listen to what they are going through and the need that they have to not be lonely in their suffering. Holding their hand and letting them know that we will walk with them, we do more than just saying that everything will be okay, apologizing for their loss or expressing our own grief.
Each of these expressions of sympathy, while serving their own purpose, do not allow us to authentically meet the other person where they are. When we express our own grief, we make ourselves, not the other person, the focus of the moment. Similarly, when we apologize to someone for something that has happened to them, we stop short of understanding what the other person has gone through, preferring instead to verbalize the effect that their experience has had upon us. Incapable of validating their feelings in this respect, we sit at the bottom of the well with them, powerless to assist them with our strength, wisdom and love.
It is very easy to indulge the negative emotions that another is experiencing in their life. What is more difficult is getting behind the negative feelings to see the real person, and having the willingness to share of your experience of life in order to connect with them at that deep level. Requiring courage, honesty and selflessness, many in the world struggle to be this vulnerable in the company of others. Not having healed their own hurts and faced their own fears, they are limited in their ability to give of the love that they essentially are. Convinced of their own lovelessness, what is left obscure in their mind are the lessons that bring us together at the spiritual level. Learned only as we explore the well of our very being, ourselves we must rescue before we can lend a hand to those who need our help.
Often it is the case that those who have suffered the most in life have the greatest ability to empathise with others. Having to run the gauntlet of their own painful experiences, their gift to others is that they can help them to do the same. Making it through many dark nights, no one is as qualified as they are in pointing the way to a new dawn.
When I think about the hardest moments of my life, the people who made the greatest difference to my frame of mind and the strength of my spirit were those who had struggled in similar ways and survived to tell me their story. Blessed with clarity and compassion as a result of their triumph, I was able to receive their wisdom and bring myself to a higher place. Open to being saved, the process of healing was allowed to continue and I grew considerably because of their generous influence. In this respect, I listened to their spiritual instruction when many others do not.
Sympathy, for a lot of people, can be addictive. Locked in a victim mindset they don’t really want to be liberated from their pain even though they may say things to the contrary. Receiving the attention of sympathetic ears, this is the payoff that keeps them stuck in the powerless cycle of complaining about the negative experiences of their life, and doing nothing to change the effect that it has on them. Being what their ego wants, we do them no favours when we enable this behaviour. Giving them permission to stay stuck, we do not express genuine love, but selfish or naive resignation to their self-imposed plight.
Some sympathetic ears play the game without being aware that a game is going on, while others play the game to build their self-image. Wanting to be seen as good people who care about others, they enable without offering much, for fear of not being accepted by those whose facades they assist in maintaining. Craving that approval and liking the power that the role of sympathetic listener affords them, they are reluctant to exert ‘tough love’ as a means of ending the game that the ego is instigating.
Only can healing be facilitated when people get real with each other. In essence this is what tough love facilitates. Calling out the game for what it is allows the real cause of the other person’s problems to be addressed with empathy. This requires a strong person who has the best interests of the other person at heart. Radiating this honest intention defences will eventually drop despite the resistance that is initially offered. Empathy greases the wheel in this process of surrender and breaks the inertia that produces as much misery as it does comfort.
No matter who we are or what we have gone through in the past it is our duty to individually and collectively evolve in the light of spirit. Experiencing our own pain we cannot let this hold us back and use it as a reason to shut other people out. Each of us needs other people as much as they need us. Expressing empathy born out of unconditional love we can make great strides in healing the rift that has us opposing each other, thereby improving the quality of life on this planet.
Empathy is love in action. Being something that we are called to manifest in the world, ask yourself this day how you can best be a conduit for empathy. There will be no shortage of opportunities to drop into the well the rope that will be another’s hope for salvation, so preserve your strength as the spirit preserves you in the light where freedom is found.
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