When I was 10 years old, I was sitting beside an elderly friend of the family in a country church service. She looked toward the front of the church where a wooden sign displayed information about the morning’s attendance and offering amounts and then commented on what she saw there. I remember turning to her in amazement. “You can read that from here?”, I asked. She looked at me with concern. “ You mean you can’t?” “I can’t even tell there are numbers on that board”, I answered. Needless to say, I was in the optometrists chair within the next few days where it was found that my eye sight was very bad indeed. I marveled then and alsotoday about the fact that I had no idea that my vision was decreasing AND that every day I was seeing the world totally differently from all of the people around me. I assumed that everyone else saw exactly like me.
A few days ago I was listening to a political commentator speak about the huge importance of empathy and how it was invaluable for individuals, corporations and governments. She was proposing that our lack of empathy was so problematic that we needed to teach it in our schools. My jaw dropped, I hit the “pause” button on the Ipod and turned to my husband and kids who were riding in the car with me. “What!? Why in the world would we have to teach this in school? Don’t we all already know how to feel empathy? Isn’t it part of what it means to be human? Isn’t it hardwired into our make up?” Empathy has always been something that just moves inside of me and so I just thought that it came equally naturally to everyone else.
For me empathy means the ability to imagine the feelings and experiences of another. (And when I use the term imagine here I am referring to an emotional imagination, not just a vision in my head.) The dictionary on my computer actually says the ability to share or understand, but in my experience unless I have actually experienced the same situation, I can’t really share or understand their feelings. (Perhaps it’s just semantics.) Empathy means that I can look at a person or situation that is different socially, culturally, religiously, etc. etc. and still say, “Here is a person that is in some fundamental way very much like me. We are not so different.” I am identifying with their humanity.
So, help me see with different eyes. I know what I hope to be true and what I want to believe, but I would like to hear about what you all think the reality is of our relationship to empathy.
Recently, I helped facilitate a women’s retreat based on Macrina Wierderkehr’s book, Seven Sacred Pauses. Since then, the women who attended have been keeping in touch to encourage each other to find ways to gift ourselves with pauses in our busy lives. Even just reminding ourselves to breathe.
Having practiced yoga and meditation over the last few years, my breath and I have become pretty good friends My breath has become a faithful companion that often draws me into awareness of my body and parts of it which are tight, carrying tension, out of alignment, or in pain. I will recognize my stress, fears or anxiety if I follow my breath into my body. My breath also leads me back to my heart and my spirit where that simple inhale and exhale become a prayer of presence.
A few mornings ago, I had just finished my yoga routine. There was nothing unusual about it, same thing that I do every day. But then, as I was rolling up my yoga mat, my back and chest were suddenly seized up by an incredible spasm of pain. It felt as though it was effecting every muscle and bone in my thorax and the pain was so severe that I felt as though I could not take a breath in. Even the slightest movement was agony. I rolled onto my side and lay there as still as possible, taking only the shallowest of breaths. Boy, was I ever AWARE of my breath. Watching it in minute detail. Where it began and where it ended. Each one punctuated with pain. Still, my mind raced with questions about what I was going to do. I didn’t know how long it would go on. Should I call my husband in the other room and tell him that I couldn’t get up. (It was reminding me of a senior citizen commercial. Something about “help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”. I did not want to do that.)
I thought about the fact that I was supposed to be doing my meditation, not rolling around on the floor in pain. Then I realized, the pain was my meditation. It was what I was going to get to pay attention to that day. And so I just tried to stay as present as I possibly could to the pain. I didn’t try to distract myself from it or try to relieve myself of it. I didn’t struggle against it. I tried to relax myself as much as possible and kept breathing.
Eventually, the extreme pain relented and I was able to take more regular breaths and then push myself up to sitting and then standing. Everything was painful that morning and most of the day, but in the midst of it I felt grateful. I was pretty sure that whatever it was wasn’t going to be permanent, and that my body was trying to right and heal itself. I know that there are millions and millions of people who live with pain every day. Physical pain, emotional and spiritual pain. I was being asked to pray with them through the pain in my own body.
I truly believe that if I had tried to ignore the pain or braced myself against it to keep it from happening, my body would have had a harder time finding its way back to its proper balance.
Is there any pain in your body today? In your mind or spirit? How might you be called to pause with your pain today?
I received a sweet email today from Sunrise Sister commenting on my blogging absence and sending wishes that all is well in my world. I am not yet sure about proper blogging etiquette. I did not purposely decide to stop blogging altogether and yet day after day passed and then several weeks in which there has been complete silence at my blog. Should I have said, “I’m a little busy right now and you won’t be seeing or hearing much from me here”? Should I have said, “I’m taking a blogger break”? I don’t know why it should surprise me that people notice when I am gone, I certainly notice when many of you haven’t posted in a while.
As much as I love blogging and taking part in the blogging community, I have found myself to be scattered in both mind and spirit, pulled in many different directions. The way that I have interacted in the blogging world was contributing to that. I have been on a spiritual journey long enough to know that life is constantly changing both inwardly and outwardly and in order to care most lovingly for myself and those that I am committed to, I must pay attention to what is needed at any given juncture and shift appropriately. At one point in my life I may have multiple different projects and interests going on all at once and my spirit thrives on it. At another point, I may be asked to give all of my focus to only one thing. Maybe two.
I am currently in a place where I am being asked to simplify on all levels. Fewer books, activities, and interactions. Fewer words. I need inner spaciousness. I am being drawn to this simplicity in the midst of a family who is busy with many activities, each of us going in many different directions. Almost all of it is wonderful, enriching, enlivening and exciting. But that wonderful life creates limited opportunities for outward spaciousness, which for me means empty places on my calendar.
There is a line from a song that I can no longer recall the title of that says, “She lives her life both wide and deep.” I want to live a life of balance between wide and deep. But right now, the scales are tipping toward depth. I feel sure that a time focused on depth will enable me to move back into the wide, wide world.