After I went through a very difficult relationship in my own life, and felt deeply wounded, I realized that I felt hate in my heart which I didn’t want there. I didn’t want to hate someone even though I thought hating the behavior was justified. How could I move from hate to love? I had been raised to, “Love my enemies.” I wasn’t able to conjure up any love for this person whom I saw as my enemy. I remember not being able to sleep well, and in my head I fought with myself many nights about what to do or how to get my head (and heart) right. I remember thinking of the paradox of how a person can love someone who later on can also become so easy to hate!
I began to ask myself questions like, “Do I want harm to come to this person? Is it THAT BAD???” The mischievous side of me immediately responded with, “well, how exactly are we defining harm?” That’s funny stuff, right?? And we’ve all probably done it. It’s like the scenes in a long ago movie, 9 to 5, with Dolly Parton, where the ladies at the office band together to literally string up their sexist and abusive boss, Mr. Hart, while they take over the office in his absence and create a world more fair, fun, and even loving. Life is no movie though, and I obviously had real work to do. When my mind would go down this path, I tried to stop the victim and vengeful part of myself from interrupting the better parts me; I tried to have all voices in my head have very serious meeting about how they can come together to feel love where love was not happening at all.
Every question I managed to think up to spur a shift in my thinking wasn’t good enough to make real change. I was thinking a good game but wasn’t buying what I was trying to sell myself. I was able to talk myself out of all my good ideas and into some very funny bad ideas like remembering a torture method my old school friend and I had devised one night to make a boyfriend suffer from lack of reciprocation of affection: Strip him down, dip him in honey and hang him up in a cave of hibernating honey loving bears to be licked to death (although we both did not want any real harm to come to him.) I’m sure you have one of your favorite “I’ll get them” methods. It’s perfectly natural, even playful, to do this kind of thinking….but only if we quickly move out of this mindset and into something more healthy and productive for our lives and relationships. Getting stuck there is the surest way to dissolve trust and any sense of empathy we might even hope to have for anyone else, ever.
My own breakthrough moment in thinking came when I chose extreme scenarios to test my truest inner position. I thought if he/she were drowning would I save him? Then I made the scenario even more gripping. If they were drowning in icy water where I might also perish if I jumped in to help, but if I try to save them then? I knew instantly the answer was yes! There was no question in my mind that I still valued this person’s right to survive and to live, and I would hold nothing back to help them as a human being, deserving of all the same things I hoped for in my own life.
Looking back today on that one sleepless night, I feel I made a big step forward away from hate. I found a way to love a fellow human being trying to survive, like all of us, the unlimited potential drowning we all face as we try to move safely through our lives, to survive, and also succeed and thrive. I found my path to empathy, which also restores trust.
No one gets through life without pain. What causes one person pain looks different than what causes pain for others. Because we can’t ever truly see or know what causes pain for most of the people we encounter as acquaintances in our lives, and those individuals make up a large percent of the “others” we interact with, we are always walking blind. Of course we can’t get to know everyone we encounter on a personal level - we wouldn’t have time to make our own story if we listened completely to all of their stories. But just our awareness that they DO have a story, and that it’s as compelling and fraught with pain and travail as our own, works to create a sense of being on a common path after all, where we can actually trust each other’s intentions, despite behavior that can sometimes trigger our own pain, and this leads us to pure and unassailable empathy. Nothing could do your life (and your blood pressure) better than to find yourself in the land of inner empathy and to stay there about as often as you interact with other people throughout your life.
Empathy isn’t only about walking a mile someone else’s shoes. It’s also a knowing and believing that life is painful for everyone in some way. Empathy promotes a sense of compassion that bridges your humanity and mine and with this we can feel more safe and hopeful every day.
Living for the love of it,
Dawna Grigsby and Alan Daigneault