Rightly or wrongly, I have always thought of myself as a bit of an empath. It’s a loaded term, really. It can give impressions of every claim from the psychic to the emotional. I am somewhere toward the latter on the spectrum.
It’s hard to tell sometimes whether my emotional experiences are those of others or of myself. Assuming it’s a little of both, I try to be mindful of the percentage. It’s preferable that the majority of my emotional experience originates from within myself. I’m better equipped to help others if I’m not taking on their feelings but just listening to them.
To sit with someone in their grief should not be the same as grieving. That’s not to say we don’t grieve alongside our friends. A healthy version of grieving alongside one’s friend is a prayer to the universe for their ease. “May their grief be eased. Amen.” It has a different character to it than taking on the grief of others.
Back in the early ’90s, when I moved to New York City, I remember feeling waves of despair. It wasn’t about moving away from home, though I did have a slight bit of homesickness. My sense of adventure was far more demanding than any desire to return home just yet. But I couldn’t help feeling as if it were better to just give up even though I’d hardly gotten started. That didn’t sound like me at all.
Walking the streets of New York, especially, I could feel the despair of the city. I didn’t realize that at first. At first I thought there was something wrong with me. I don’t even know what caused my sudden realization, but one day, walking near Bryant Park, it suddenly occurred to me that the feelings I was experiencing were not my own.
I don’t know where the idea came from, but I absolutely knew it to be true. I felt immediately better. And slowly, I learned how to distinguish other people’s emotions from my own. It resulted in a greater curiosity and empathy for others. Essentially, it made me more brave. It made me more compassionate and less judgmental. It felt like a window into the hearts of other people. Not specific individuals, but the aggregate sea of humanity that exists in Manhattan. I felt for them.
I attribute that vast sea to the reason I was able to figure it out. Manhattan has such a dense and emotionally seismic population. The range of emotions is off the chart and thickly concentrated. Frankly, it was easier to discern it from my own because it was so powerful and distinct. It made the boundary clearer than in other places I have lived or visited. The minute I realized where this newly visible boundary lay, I simply felt better. No great awakening other than just feeling better.
Over time, I began to realize the implications of seeing the line. Once I saw the demarcation point between my own heart and that of others, it changed me forever. Just realizing there was a line at all changed me.
I still struggle with taking on the emotions of other people, but now I see it. That’s the difference. It’s like wearing special glasses whose task it is to filter in new things that had always been there but were previously blinded from my knowing. Those glasses are in my tool box. And sometimes I forget them there. It is a life practice to remember to put them on.
Do you wonder what your percentage is? Do you wonder how much of your emotional experience originates from within you and how much is being transmitted by others? We all are walking radio towers transmitting vibration and electromagnetism. We exhibit a field around us. And while we may understand virtually nothing of it, we know it exists. That alone has implications. Just what is going in and out of your field?
Out of a desire for nothing more than to simply feel better, assuming one always has room to improve upon that, be curious about your percentage. If you are brave, be radically curious about it. Be forensic. Ask the question aloud to yourself. Pray to see the difference between your emotions and those of others. Pray to see the line.
Acknowledge that you are a sovereign entity, designed with benevolence and purpose. Our ability to see into and feel the hearts of others is a superpower we just need more practice in using. I’m here to tell you that you have the power. I encourage the exploration of spiritual life practices for you to begin using it.
Empathy is a wonderful gift; treasure it wildly. But especially now, during these trying and emotional times of our human civilization, which we will in time overcome, learning to discern the difference between our emotions and others’ will give you the focus you need to spend time healing the wounds on your own heart without confusing them for something more profound than they are. Whatever size the troubles on your own heart may be, they are smaller than that combined with the sorrows of others.
Today, I heard from my mechanic that the repair I needed was going to cost a lot less than I thought. I guess I shouldn’t have worried so much about it. I’m glad I finally took the time to have it looked at. It seems a much more manageable problem to me now.
Notice your emotions objectively. Stand back from them and acknowledge them. That will be the first step toward getting under the hood of it and finally determining the difference between the repairs you actually need from the smoke that’s coming into your car from the truck in front of you.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is the producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube and host of the Our Common Dharma podcast series. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.