Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect to you, I have to connect to something in myself that knows that feeling. Brene Brown
The other evening, my mother and I were at the Grille, waiting for sunset. We were sitting on the sea wall, enjoying the moment, while people mulled around us. As I have seen many times, out of the blue the woman sitting next to my mother started to speak. I saw my mother close in a bit, while maintaining a semblance of politeness, as the woman began to share the most intimate details of her life. I could see in my minds eye a cloud emanating from the woman and enveloping my mother. This continued for a few minutes, and our original intent to find some peace and relaxation was marred. Finally, just before sunset, the woman left. I looked at my mother, and I said what I always do. Why do people talk to you so?
It seems in my family, the woman have this trait. Perhaps it’s because of a natural affinity to healing (I am the 4th generation I know to be in the medical field or periphery), and we all share an inclination towards caring “too much.” Wherever we go, we tend to have people open up to us, revealing things you’d think a stranger would not. Things that may be uncomfortable for us to hear and process, but we are there to receive, offer consolation, words of support, and more often than not, the person leaves feeling a bit better. Are we like lighthouses in a storm?
This sounds innocuous, except over time, the feelings that have been downloaded can be too much. The imagery too much. The woman who spoke to me about her three ex boyfriends who physically abused her, in grim detail, and how she finally got away and now seeks to help others escape. Inspiring, and a beautiful soul, but now I have that imagery to deal with, to forget from my minds eye the pain I saw and felt inflicted on the woman who spoke of them. The image of the girl in the parking lot, who by mistake slammed her hand in the car door, feeling in my hand the crunch of her bone and her screams of pain reverberating in my head while her father quickly drove her to the hospital.
If I sound heartless, it’s because sometimes I am. I have to be. Empathy is one of the most powerful gifts, and as with all gifts, it can overwhelm when received in abundance. Some days I am inundated with so much emotion, I have to try to stop it by shutting down, to not care, and sometimes, I do this in a harsh manner and lash out at the source to stop the overwhelming turmoil, so I can function. All the while reminding myself that we are here to help, to be kind, and to spread love wherever we go, and I should be the vessel to receive and give. But sometimes, it is too much feeling, not of my own, and I cannot go on carrying it with everything else that is my own.
Here is an excerpt from a tale inspired by my Irish roots and my affinity for the sea. It describes one way I visualize stopping the torrent of emotion in a situation that is hopeless to change as is. I hope you enjoy.
“The wizened warrior looked out to the dark and threatening storm brewing, the large waves crashing far below the cliff edge where she stood. At her feet, the maiden was bent over, on her knees, her platinum blonde hair streaming behind her shoulders in the wild wind. Tears fell from her cheeks to the earth below.
“How do I make it stop? How do I cease to care?”
With a sigh, the woman knelt next to the girl. She gently took the girl’s chin into her hand, a hand that had seen many battles during her days. Her hazel eyes softened as she pushed strands of hair from the girl’s blue eyes.
“You take your heart, the one that cares, the one that is bleeding. Lift it up, and with your sword hand, withdraw the sharp blade of truth from its sheath. Use the blade to sever the arteries, the veins, the ties. Heat the blade in the eternal flame of love till it burns true, and use it to cauterize the wound. Let your tears of grief cool the skin, till there is nothing but a scar in its place. Throw the heart behind you, to the ground, and walk away, head held high, my child. Warriors use pain to make us stronger. Our scars are memories of things that no longer serve us. Remember them for the lessons you have learned, and the strength they have given, with gratitude, grace, and love.”
She kissed the girl’s forehead and stood up, taking the girl’s hand in hers and pulled her softly to her feet.
“Come. We must prepare. The next challenge is facing us, and the skies tell me there will be much adversity before we see our way clear home.””