Exorcisms & Empathy
A few days ago I shared a story about empathy. It was a story about my first and most poignant experience of a truly empathetic response. This story seemed to resonate with a number of people, so I thought I’d give it a permanent fixture here. (Mainly, though, I just wanted to highlight my Mother’s excellent nineties bangs.)
I was a little girl with a tummy bug and I was puking and disgusting. I can remember sitting in bed, sobbing because I got vomit on my Calvin & Hobbes book. It was the worst. My mother, who’d been patiently tending to me, sat down and brushed back my hair and said- “I’m so sorry you feel so bad. If I could take away your pain and bear it myself I would.” I can vividly recall the comfort those words provided.
“I’m so sorry you feel so bad. If I could take away your pain and bear it myself I would.”
Then she just sat with me. Even though I was whiny and gross, she sat up with me and rubbed my back until I fell asleep. It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget. It’s literally how I define empathy now. Just being there for someone, despite the helplessness of knowing you can’t make it better. Being there for the hard, uncomfortable, pukey parts of life.
For a very long time I struggled to be truly empathetic. I felt a strong pull to fix (still a WIP!) and this tendency- albeit well-intentioned- caused a lot of recurring issues. The willingness to manage or take responsibility for the emotions of others, the readiness to accept blame and fault if it meant somebody else’s anger would cease. Now I use this understanding of what empathy is to help me define my boundaries. What’s mine, versus what belongs to other people. How do I show up compassionately while still holding people capable?
My Dad, in case you’re wondering, stood in my doorway making the symbol of the cross with his fingers and yelling- “The power of Christ compels you!”