Empathy: What It Is And Is Not.
When I was a young child, no older than five or six years old, I remember sitting beside my mother as she shared with me something she was feeling or going through at that time. When she finished, I told her I understood, and after looking at me for a moment, she said she believed I did. And I had. Somehow, child though I was, I knew exactly what she was feeling as if I myself had experienced it. That was the first experience I had of empathy. As I got older I would sometimes feel unexplained anger while talking with someone who was angry, or joy or sadness, all depending on what the person I was talking to felt. The bad part was that if it was anger, I would really become angry even if I did not know why. Later I learned about empathy, (believe it or not I first learned about empathy through the Star Trek The Next Generation, where Deanna Troi came from a world of empaths) and I realized that at such times the emotion was not mine, and this helped me greatly in learning to control my own emotions.
Empathy is not some supernatural psychic thing. I believe it is the natural result of having compassion on others and desiring to help them. When you care about the feelings and well being of others, you begin to have empathy. And it grows stronger the more it is used. I have talked to some who have such strong empathy that they actually feel it is a curse rather than a blessing. My own seems to be in perfect measure. Except that it is not limited to those people I come into contact with. It is extended to characters in books or film and sometimes even to photo's...Like the one above. In the above picture, I do not know what that woman is thinking, but I do know what she is feeling. When I look at that picture I feel great sadness, torment of the heart...and I feel like she has lost a son, though I will never know if this is true.
My empathy also seems to extend to animals. While I was in Yellowstone National Park, where I spent a summer working at Old Faithful Inn, and volunteered with the backcountry program the rangers ran, I came into close contact with three elk and a moose. The first elk was in labor, and within an hour I was sitting next to her where she laid on the lawn, so close I could have reached out and touched her shoulder, trying to let her feel how much I sympathized with her. She eventually got up and left when the third woman to walk up and watch us began laughing and talking as loud as she could. After the elk doe left so did she, then the second woman left as well. The last woman to leave (she was the first to arrive) said, just before she to left..."You know, I really think you and that elk were talking to each other...". And I felt it to, that we had been communicating.
The second elk had just had her calf in the huge meadow surrounded by boardwalk, near the Inn. I was heading out to meet the rangers to work on clearing fallen trees from paths. As I approached the meadow, I saw a large group of people standing and pointing. from where I was I could not yet see what held their attention. I stopped a man that had just come down from where the group was and asked him what was going on. He said an elk had a calf sometime in the night or early morning hours and it was sleeping. As I finally got close enough to see, I saw the elk doe standing way on the far side of the meadow. Suddenly, in my mind's eye, I saw her charge across the meadow at the group of people...And even before that "vision" was finished, she charged. She reached the group just before I did and they all turned as one and ran. The last person in the group and so the closest to the doe, was a little girl. She slowed and looked behind her to see if she was still being chased. As she did this the doe stopped for half a second. That gave me time to get between her and the little girl and the rest of the group who had stopped and turned to watch. I stood still and talked soothingly to the doe, and she stopped and stood there watching me. Finally she turned and walked to where her calf was lying in the grass. I spent the rest of that day staying between her and tourists who insisted on getting close to her for a picture of her calf. The next morning she had moved into some trees trying to get her calf farther from people. By the time I got there the ranger chief had had to rescue three women she had treed. As we walked past where she was, she began to charge him (he had told me he had chased her away from the tree that morning using his hat, and now she recognized him or his hat or both) so I told him to walk on the far side of me, so that I was between them. As soon as he moved to my far side, she stopped her charge. She also recognized me.
The third elk came just after the moose. The rangers knew how much I wanted to see a bear, so whenever there was a sighting they let me know about it. On this particular misty morning a black bear and her cubs had been sighted by a waterfall a few miles out. I never did find them (though I did find a chunk of bear fur) but I did come across a moose standing in some trees about 40 feet off the path. I knew moose are very unpredictable, but I felt no fear when I saw this one. I felt peaceful. I stopped and took a few pictures (they did not come out well due to the heavy mist). After the third picture I began to feel restless and I knew it was time to move on. As I cleared the low, small valley where the moose was I turned back to see if I could still see it. When I turned back around, there was a young elk doe standing in the trail ahead of me. As I stood there watching her, she slowly began to come towards me, one slow step at a time. I really believe if I had just kept still she would have come all the way up to me...As it was I got the bright idea that maybe she just wanted to go past me, so I stepped off the path and bowed to her and told her it was all hers. She flicked her ears at me, then turned around and walk a short ways into the trees before stopping to take one last look at me. Perhaps I had her confused...I looked like humans...but maybe she did not sense human but just friend...and she wanted to see me up close to figure me out...when I spoke she knew for certain I was human, but she still felt unafraid of me.
I believe the best actors and actresses have a good dose of empathy. I have thought about it and it just makes sense that someone who is able to put themselves in anothers shoes and feel what they feel, understanding what they have gone through or are going through, would do the best job of portraying that person so that you would think they themselves had been there.
Empathy is a gift that can be used to help others. It is not a myth or parlour trick, or something invented by Sci-Fi writers. It is connected with the heart...not the physical heart but the heart of our soul. It is to be desired.