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Know the Difference Between Empathy and Taking On Another's Burden

It is so important to be both empathetic and sympathetic toward the people we love. It is also vitally important when our loves ones show us empathy and sympathy and compassion during times in our life when we really need the support. To me, that’s a part of loving someone; walking in their shoes and letting them know how much we care about them when they are faced with a difficult situation.

However, I have also discovered how easy it is to be “brought down” by someone else’s troubles, so much so that it colors my own thinking and I end up experiencing their problems and circumstances, on a visceral level, even though they have nothing whatsoever to do with me. I also know people who take on the world’s pain, and walk around with a heaviness and a palpable despair, all the while not doing anything constructive to try to help. I do not see the point in anyone making themselves miserable simply because someone else is miserable. We can have compassion for them, we can commiserate with them, we can offer them sympathy and encouragement, but then we have to let their distress go because it’s not doing either one of us any good or helping the situation even one iota.

Here’s a kind of outside-the-box example of this: I had a friend who had an extremely wealthy uncle. This uncle happened to have been flying back from Paris when the events of 9/11 took place. He and his wife were diverted to Canada and told to await further instructions about when and how they would get home. According to my friend, they found a hotel to stay in, and because there was nothing else to do, they went down to the spa and got massages.

My friend was appalled. “CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?” she yelled. “The entire world is literally falling apart and they went and GOT MASSAGES? How cruel and insensitive of them!”

On first thought, I completely agreed with her. Even though these people certainly couldn’t have done anything about what was going on in the world, wasn’t the compassionate thing to do at this time of world-wide disaster to feel upset and scared and torn apart and sympathetic for all of the people who lost loved ones? Yes, of course. But then I thought to myself, what does that look like? Showing empathy can look very different to different people. For some people it might mean crying for hours about the state of the world and that helps them to cope. For some it might be going to bed and pulling the covers over their heads to block out the ugliness and terror of the situation. For some others it might be racing out of their houses to do whatever they can do concretely help the community around them in any way possible. Empathy and concern for the plight of the world around us - that we usually can’t control by the way - are very personal things. Maybe them getting massages was their way of coping with the unexpected turn of events in their return trip. Does it seem weird or insensitive or selfish? Maybe.

Or maybe, more accurately, they did not have a true grasp about what was going on because they had not been watching the news all day. Their information about what had happened was being relayed in microscopic bits from sources like the French airline, who probably didn’t know much about what had truly happened across the ocean, and because all of the phone lines and satellites were down, they couldn’t get in touch with anyone for more up-to-the-minute information. So all they thought was, “We’ve been grounded for who knows how long, getting home is completely out of our control, we’re exhausted and stiff from our flight, let’s take care of something we can actually control.

Sympathy can be a tricky thing. In times of great distress should entertainers stop entertaining out of respect, or should they go on doing what they do to bring some measure of joy and light to others in their grief? Is there a prescribed time during crises that we should refrain from doing what brings us happiness so we do not appear heartless and unfeeling to those around us? Ultimately it’s up to each of us to do what feels right in our hearts and to check in with our souls about what would be the best thing to do in each situation. But I want to stress here that we all have permission to let go of someone else’s burden while showing them care and understanding. It is not selfish to do this. It’s actually healthier for both people, because if you stay strong and optimistic then you can help the other person while they are suffering, and hopefully vice versa.

We must be empathetic as a people. It is our responsibility as members of the human race to always look out for our fellow humans and to be there for them when they need us. But being there in body and spirit and in love for another person does not mean getting mired down in their hardships. Be the light out of the darkness, and never let anyone else dim that light for any reason.

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