If any of you are still harboring the illusion that those of us in the “helping professions” are able to help others because we are totally self-actualized, always have it all together, never get sad or angry or frustrated or confused, never sink into bottomless despair, then you need to reread my previous entries.
I’m convinced that those of us in the helping professions can only help others to the extent we have grappled with similar challenges in our own lives, been overwhelmed by the associated pain (rage, frustration, confusion, doubt, anxiety, depression, etc.), not prevailed immediately (flopped around in the mire of hopelessness more than a few times for more than a few minutes), and then, when it seemed all was lost and the only release from the pain was ending it all, had amazing Grace dawn yet again.
In the past year, I have come to understand that, in many cases, when I think I’m demonstrating empathy for someone, it’s really sympathy. When I demonstrate EMPATHY, I feel sorry WITH the other person. My ability to put myself in their place is directly proportional to my ability to feel and identify the full range of my own emotions. With SYMPATHY, because I’m not aware of having ever felt anything like what they are feeling, the most I can do is feel sorry FOR them. Sorry they had to go through whatever life trial was currently beating them face first into the dirt. Sometimes in the throes of sympathy, when I was feeling a bit too smug about my own more highly evolved consciousness (come on, you’ve all been THERE), I would say to myself (or heaven help me, out loud), “Gee, it’s a shame Susie doesn’t know all that I know. Then she wouldn’t still be grieving her husband’s death or abandonment by her 17-year life partner or potential loss of her home or death of her beloved animal companion or promotion she didn’t get at work or whatever. If Susie were as wise as I am, it wouldn’t have hit her so hard to begin with, she’d certainly be over it by now and be returned to the Perpetually Happy Fold of the Incredibly Enlightened.”
There’s a reason Buddhist Life Coach Pema Chödrön warns against becoming too comfortable with how well we are doing on the path to enlightenment. Because the point of enlightenment is not to become superior and feel no pain. It’s to open your heart wider and wider to your own pain and, through that experience, to the pain of others. It’s to help you develop deeper love and true empathy for yourself and everyone else. It’s so you can finally connect to all of humankind on the most profound level by understanding we are all fundamentally the same. We are all Just Human. Pema’s writing is so accessible because, Baby, she’s been there. Maybe as recently as yesterday. And she knows she’ll be there again. Maybe as soon as tomorrow. Or even today.
Those of us in the helping professions are so often referred to as Wounded Healers because we are all wounded, especially those of us who dedicate our lives to helping others heal and grow. The most inspiring healers and teachers, certainly the ones nearest and dearest to me, let it all hang out. They share openly how deeply wounded they are (addiction, depression, you name it). By sharing every last gory detail of their struggles, defeats and victories, we mere mortals can open ourselves to the possibility that, if they could prevail on many days, maybe there’s hope for us to prevail as well. In the movie Leap of Faith, Liam Neeson (the local Sheriff) is exposing Steve Martin (traveling revival showman extraordinaire) as a fraud – with criminal behavior and jail from a young age. Neeson thinks this disqualifies Martin to lead others to a better life. Martin replies, au contraire. Herein lies his chief qualification. Who are you going to trust to lead you out of the mess you’ve made of your life? The upright guy who’s always walked the straight and narrow, or the man who found redemption after wallowing in the muck and mire?
The one thing we can be certain of, in addition to death and taxes, is that, no matter what, we are all Just Human. Whenever we start to forget that, start to get just the least bit clueless or cocky, Life has a not so funny way of reminding us – through yet another spectacular crash and burn – that we still have much left to learn. Which leads directly to my next posting. Stay tuned to laugh and cry with me over Life’s Latest Smack Upside My Head. If you’d like to be notified when new postings are available, just enter your email address in the subscription spot on the menu above and to the right.
Dear Friends, may you be just fine with being just human, just here, just now. You are loved and loving. You are blessed and a blessing.