Sunday, November 17, 2013

Empathy, Or The Second Annual Beauty of Decay Post

Post 81

For a gardener, Fall can feel traumatic. What one has loved is passing away.

It is hard not to identify with the garden if one has subcreated and tended it with love.

Recently, at my day job, I got a reference call. The question? What is empathy?

The dictionary definition was too technical for the caller; she asked me if I could explain it. I said, approximately," It's like when you watch the evening news and you see a woman crying cause someone or something has died. Part of you hurts just seeing her go through it. And you'd like to make it better for her, just like you would like things to be made better for you when you're hurting."

This time of year we see a lot of stuff dying around us. Even though we've been told that plants do not feel pain, their seeming demise projects a somber quality, even though the colors of the turning foliage are the essence of liveliness. It's a suggestive paradox.

A long time ago I worked at a company that was loosing money and where it felt like everyone was fighting. At lunch a co-worker and I would go and sit in a quiet corner of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, trying to get some peace. I remember feeling as if all the world's misery was on my shoulders. I did not know it then, but I was heading into a depression. My friend said she felt it too. There was so much constant  disruption around us, it was as if we could feel peoples' pain bleeding into the air. And all we could do was breathe it in.

 Like I said, long time ago. But empathy can sometimes be almost a double-edge sword. People who are sensitive to others' pain sometimes get taken advantage of because of it. They breathe in others' pain and let it become their own. And frankly, I do not know of a human being on this earth who does not have enough pain. Nobody needs more.

For me, this season is useful for thinking about such things. As I get older, I feel I get freer, strong enough to feel empathy but also to keep better boundaries so as not to breathe in others' pain. And I've learned to mistrust people who expect or even ask me to do so. 
Most of us want most of the good stuff in life, much of which most of us never get all at once. I have found I need certain things, like privacy and freedom. I feel self-conscious easily. I dislike being guided by anything but my own small portion of intelligence, my conscience and the Holy Spirit. I hate control, and I consider underhanded attempts at control mean and ugly. I like to cooperate. I like to know what is going on and the more I know what is going on, the easier it is for me to cooperate. Nevertheless, I also know that at the center of life is Mystery, one that should not be too easily defined or confined.  I believe the laborer is worthy of her or his hire. And I know that love makes things thrive and if there is no thriving, then there is no love. And that I, like most of us, need to be loved and to love. And all this, of course, is nowhere near the definition of what I need. Like everyone, I am too complex for any such shorthand. But with age, I have at least learned a few basics.

Walking through this autumn world is a chance to rehearse what's been learned during all one's  cycles of growth and decay. To feel empathy without losing boundaries. To morn with the dead and exalt with the living. To be more circumspect and subtle than innate bluntness may normally allow. To affirm, while in time, that the outworn sometimes needs to go so that the new can be given space.

To bless the beauty of decay and hopefully, but wisely, await what follows.

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