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Empathy: What It Is And Is Not.

Updated on February 13, 2012

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.


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  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 5 years ago from south dakota, usa

    DB, so very true. how are you my friend? i hope Snoogins has recovered and you are all doing well. take care and have a great night.

  • DearBandit profile image

    DearBandit 5 years ago

    Great story. It makes me think of the saying, not to judge other people, because we do not want to be judge as well in a negative way.

  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa

    suzettenaples...i agree completely. it is the trend in todays society to stand alone. when people believe they should look out for "number one" first and formost, they build a wall that keeps all others out. this wall also keeps them from understanding others.

    thank you for reading and commenting. have a great day.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Wonderful hub! You explain empathy well. Some are born with it inate, which I have a feeling you are, and some have to learn empathy. It is simply putting yourself in someone else's shoes and experiencing the emotions they are experiencing.

    It seems there is less and less empathy in the world today. The world has become so judgmental and argumentative. Old native American proverb: "Do not criticise me until you have walked a mile in my moccasins."

  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa helps to take stock of the situation and ask yourself if you have a reason to be sad, happy, angry, etc. if you dont and were none of these before being around or talking to others, the chances are pretty good that they are not your emotions. and the nursing field is an excellent place for an empath and i agree it would make you a better nurse. must have some empathy of your own. it gives more depth to what you read or watch, so while my writing is somewhat mediocre, your gift of empathy might enhance it. i am glad you enjoyed it.

    thank you both for stopping by to read and comment, i will go read some of your stuff and return the favor of sharing.

  • peoplepower73 profile image

    Mike Russo 6 years ago from Placentia California

    Wow, you not only have the gift of empathy with humans, but also with animals. I think they can sense your compassion for them and that's what calms them down. Not only was this a great article on empathy, but I could visuaize the whole scenes with all the animals you encoutered because of the visual words that you used.

    Thanks for SHARING

  • L.L. Woodard profile image

    L.L. Woodard 6 years ago from Oklahoma City

    I was pleased to learn that you are able to separate your emotions from the ones you glean from others through empathy. That isn't a skill I've acquired, although I find myself to be greatly empathetic. I imagine this character trait lead me into the nursing field and I certainly hope it made me a better nurse.

    Great hub. Voted up and SHARING.

  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa

    hello are so very right. it only makes sense that those who have empathy, especially strong empathy, will be the most able to help those who are suffering...those in the medical field that have it would certainly be most effective and helpful.

    thank you for stopping by to read this and for your comment. have a wonderful night.

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

    tim - I have always believed that the most effective mental health practitioners are those who are able to use and display their empathy. Thanks for this interesting recollection.