Empathy's a vital character element

This is the seventh column dealing with the topic of character.

"I know how you feel."

"No you don't. You couldn't possibly know. You're not me!"

Is this a familiar memory?

Has someone told you when you were suffering, "I know just how you feel" then proceeded to tell you (in boring detail, usually) how much pain they suffered during some previous ailment?

Contrast that with : "You know, I can't possibly comprehend how you feel. If you could tell me, perhaps I could be of some assistance."

Like most of you, I have taken part in all three conversations. Numerous times, but I remember three examples particularly well.

I was eight or nine and the dentist "extracted" five of my baby teeth. I remember emerging from the ether and repeatedly vomiting into a sack as we drove home. My dad laid that sympathetic line on me and I angrily responded "No you don't. You couldn't…"

Only a few years ago I answered the phone while in bed and told the caller I had the flu. She told me at length about her recent bout with the bug. It didn't make me feel better.

The third exchange took place while I was in Korea back in the early 1950s. I was on duty when suddenly I keeled over. A friend who saw me fall called the commanding officer who was nearby.

When I came to, he was leaning over me. I can't recall what I mumbled in response to his question, but I will never forget his response. "You've had a very tough day. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you."

At the heart of a meaningful response to pain or suffering is empathy, an important element of a person's character.

Empathy means understanding and appreciating what's going on within a person. The essence is the Native American maxim that you can't really understand a person until you walk several miles in his moccasins. It's an intuitive connection that some people inherently possess, while other folks find they have to consciously work to achieve it.

What it isn't is warm fuzzies or glib, meaningless assurance that all is well when it isn't, no matter how well meaning the person is.

Empathy means sincerely trying to put yourself in the other's place – in their circumstance at that moment. Stories of your similar ailments don't help the person suffering. When in pain, the victim is concerned about his own suffering and how to relieve it.

Which is why the colonel's response was so important to me. He kept the focus on me. He didn't give me superficial reassurance or shift the focus away from me by telling me how he once fainted, or attempt to give me advice based on his experience. He simply asked how he could help, if indeed he could.

What he really did was teach me a lesson about empathy that I have never forgotten.

(Ron Barnes is a longtime Prescott resident and a semi-retired educator and businessman.)