You probably know the song by Elton John “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” I have been thinking a lot – why? Why on earth we have such a difficulty or resistance when we all want to hear this magic word especially when we feel hurt or disadvantaged, or disregarded or dumped or failing or whatever you can think of. We say sorry quite easily when we accidentally stamp on somebody´s foot or we realize we do not queue correctly or if we spill a glass of wine in our neighbours´living room. As if the damage of the spilt wine was more important than the damage of harmful words, disrespectful actions, deceit, vengeance, blaming, etc. In order to be genuinely sorry for the things we have done or not have done we need to have empathy. I could now write a lot about empathy and how being empathetic helps us to imagine the feelings or distress the other person might experience. The essential question though that occupies my mind is the following: How to improve our empathy when we all dispose different levels of this highly appreciated skill?
I love animals. Fluffy ones, flying creatures, lizards, colourful bugs, game. As a child I spent quite a lot of time by observing those and until now I am impressed by the uniqueness of all animals. When I saw an animal hurt on the road I literally felt pain somewhere in my body as if I saw the situation that came beforehand. You would say quite an empathetic child. I can tell you – you might be born with a high level of empathy but there is still space and time to learn more. I will never forget the day when I was about 5 or 6 years old and a little boy from the neighbourhood came to play in our big garden. We collected baby snails. As we were running downhill he accidentally dropped one of them and stamped on it with his tiny feet. I thought well it was just a snail. He on the contrary went down on his knees, took the little creature in his hands, held it in front of our faces and looked at me saying “I killed it”. “I killed this little baby snail” and his eyes were shedding tears big as a pea and I was moved by his tears more than by the death of the animal. It was powerful as you can guess since I recall it after almost 35 years had passed.
Sometimes we meet people who can make us feel more than we used to feel before and it changes our perspective for the rest of our lives.
What I try to do with my children is to explain to them what we can actually feel when we are hurt or if something does not work the way we imagined. There come anger, disappointment, fear, sadness, pity, guilt into the game. Some people experience physical symptoms – lack of breath, pain in stomach, fast heart beat…It is important not to avoid but experience and encompass these emotions and then trying to imagine that it might be felt by somebody else too. Consequently we can also learn to act in order to help the other person go through these emotions. We can be silently sorry for a dead animal but we can do so much more for a living person who is struggling. However, we tend to avoid people who suffer. If we cannot escape we tell them everything will pass one day. We tell them to occupy themselves – even “better” we tell them to be positive (as if they were playing a theater role and could switch the role in a minute). We see tears and we turn our head in the opposite direction, or we tell them to stop crying for nothing is worth the tears (even more tears will come). The most simple actions are often enough. We can listen without giving our opinion. We can say we are sorry that they suffer. We can ask if they need something. We can say we think of them. We can say we love them if we do. We might say a prayer for them. We could hug them. We can apologize. Distraction does not work. Positivity comes spontaneously after the pain is felt, accepted and transformed and it takes time.
The little boy needed to feel and cry out the irreversibility of his accidental act and forgive himself that he hurt a precious creature. We need to shed tears without shame. We could and should be present with people who struggle. We need to learn to be sorry because life is tough sometimes. We all hurt, fail and we all feel abandoned from time to time. We all experience the injustice caused by circumstances, inflicted by people we love or people we have cared about. Being more empathetic can be learned under the condition that we can genuinely admit our own wrongdoings. Last but not least we need to risk to be vulnerable and forgiving (towards others and ourselves). It is a life job. Even though one’s life span seems to be rather generous nowadays it can also end anytime. So do not wait. Run, Forrest run!