Considering Empathy


My best friend’s mom died my sophomore year in high school. It was probably the first time in my life when I had the opportunity to truly mourn with another person. The thing about it was that it really only looked like we mourned right after it happened. I was at the hospital that night, and she spent a grand total of ten seconds or less, sobbing into my shoulder. And that was one of those weird moments that, as an adult, would probably terrify me. I would wonder if I’d said the right thing or if I should buy her flowers… but, at the time, I was completely caught up in the moment. I was not self-conscious; I was just there with my friend. I even did something incredibly stupid or courageous at the funeral. I was saddened that no one young was expressing how truly great this lady was, so I spontaneously decided to say something in front of everyone. And I got up there, and had an idea in my head of what I would say, and I started, and I looked at my friend, and I started sobbing.

And then, we didn’t talk about it much. For more than a decade.

However, during the quiet years, even though I would never presume to know exactly what my friend experienced, I believe it’s accurate to say that I grieved with her. I knew that even though we weren’t talking about it, my friend’s life was forever scarred by that event, and I hurt for her. I knew that her loss and the family’s loss was there, regardless of the casual interactions we were having at any given moment.

I know there are numerous, more recent events in my life to draw from, but there really haven’t been a ton of times when I was sooooo involved in someone else’s tragedy. And I think it’s interesting that my friend’s observable behavior was pretty normal. I don’t believe that her grades dropped. She kept playing softball. She was friendly and fun enough to be around, but I always assumed that she was hurting deeply when people weren’t watching.

That’s sort of what I believe empathy is. I believe that empathy does not require any sort of outward show of solidarity (although common decency and social norms usually call for hugs and tears). I don’t actually believe empathy is listening to what someone says about her feelings and being able to think of a time when I’ve felt similarly. I think empathy often requires that I feel something I’ve never felt before, even though my own circumstances in no way indicate that specific emotional state.

Now, I actually think one of my personal strengths is empathy. I don’t know if other people would say that about me, because the whole expressing how I feel is a terrible weakness of mine. However, because of my odd combo of deep, yet unexpressed emotion, I highly value empathetic friends, and I’m almost exclusively close with people who I believe to be particularly empathetic. Usually, they’re incredibly intelligent people who can see past the observable and know that what a person says and does is more reflective of what she wants people to see than of what is actually true.

A few years ago, I decided to move on from that boy who I loved, and a few people in my life recently said something that tugged at me in a weird way. They said that, observing me while I was trying to move on, it seemed like I really committed to that path and thoroughly and quickly achieved it. Honestly, I still struggle sometimes not to be in love with that boy. Other times, I’m perfectly fine, which I suspect is pretty evident to my closest friends. There are subtleties they take note of as I pretend not to care or I take a controlled tone about it. I trust that they know controlled tones aren’t the signature of actual control and love doesn’t vanish in a month, though my expressions of that affection did. The understanding they have signifies true friendship that doesn’t rely on public impressions. It’s deeper than that.

Empathy is knowing the human heart and its melodies. No matter how a friend acts, her heart beat is predictable, so I can feel her sadness even when she doesn’t say she’s sad. I can consider how I would feel if I were her, and trust that I’m at least in the right ball park.

In the last year, my closest friends have experienced great losses, primarily in the form of deaths. I hope and pray that they didn’t feel alone, regardless of what I said and did. I hope and pray they know that their tragedies are my tragedies. Their losses, my losses.

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