Flexing your Empathy Muscle

Bernadette Aylward

“How are you?” It’s a simple question and a common enough greeting. The socially acceptable answer is somewhere in the range between “fine” and “great!” And that might be the end of that topic-how you are feeling at that moment. It’s one of my pet peeves when someone greets me like this in passing. Literally, as we are walking past each other on the street, why would you choose that greeting? “Hello!” or “Hey” or “Good morning/afternoon/evening!” all work just as well, and asking it in passing really hammers home the point that often when we ask this question, we aren’t looking for a real answer.

During our house meetings each Sunday night, we do something called hoggies and woggies. Maybe you’ve heard this called highs and lows or rose and thorns-there are many more names, I’m sure. “Hoggies” are something good in our lives-they can be something that happened in the past week or that is coming up, something that is good in our lives. As you might have guessed, “woggies” are the opposite. We share what is not going well, what is weighing us down or troubling us. Some weeks it is simply not getting enough sleep or having a cold-easy enough troubles to share. But I have grown in my ability to share beyond those surface level discomforts because of the space we have created in our home and in our weekly routine.

This has been an important practice for me in particular. I think that I’m a pretty good listener, but I don’t always have the courage to reach out when someone might need to talk. Sometimes I’m not sure what to say or how I might respond or maybe I’m just too comfortable with sitting in silence. In any case, this experience both of sharing and of listening has caused me to stretch beyond focusing on myself. I notice how genuinely happy I feel for my fellow GOTHs when something good happens, and how touched I am that they are willing to share what is troubling them.

Not knowing what to say has often stopped me from reaching out in the past, but I’ve learned that there isn’t always a lot to be said in the face of sadness and pain. We practiced “holy listening” during a recent formation, learning how to let someone tell their story without looking to react or answer or immediately share a time we felt the same. It can be enough to feel that pain with another person. It might lighten their load or I might be impressed by their resiliency-or things might be exactly the same and we both might just feel sad. Any of these outcomes are possible and acceptable. The important thing is to reach out and work that muscle of empathy. Doing so in close relationships-within the house, within a family or a relationship or a friendship-makes it easier to exercise empathy outside that familiar circle. It makes it easier to imagine why someone might act in a different way than I would, why they believe something different from me, how they might feel.

Developing an understanding is important in and of itself, but it also allows us to tell different stories about the people around us and lessen our anger at those we encounter. The person driving too fast or too slow-why might they be doing that? Are they in a rush because of an emergency? Are they a cautious driver getting back on the road after an accident? Many, many other people have shared this idea, but it bears repeating. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes can change how you look at the world as a whole. It can change how you move through your day, how you read the news, how you react to problems. And it can start with asking a simple question and really listening to the answer.

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1 Response to Flexing your Empathy Muscle

  1. Mike Culver says:

    Beautifully written. Reminds me of “Don’t judge people; you never know what hard battle they are fighting” Variation: “Be kind to everyone; we’re all fighting a hard battle.” It can be a very loving thing to ask someone to explain how they feel. Keep up the good works! Mike

    Oh – and come by and see the garden – it’s the best year ever!

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