Empathy: Good or bad …. black or white?

Have you ever felt carried along by the tide of emotions? I feel that way all the time. You might characterize me as emotionally sensitive. That can be good. And that can also be tricky sometimes, when it comes to ranking high on the empathy scale.

According to Merriam Webster, my go-to source when I want to know the nuances of words (and that’s a favorite pastime for me!), empathy is defined as ‘the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.’

When is empathy appropriate? Inappropriate? Are ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ the right words to use? Can we really know what people are feeling if they don’t share their feelings with us? How much are our own feelings a form of projection or transference?

Are there certain people for whom we shouldn’t feel empathy towards? Criminals? Mean people? People you don’t care for, for whatever reason? Should empathy be black or white? Should we have empathy for everyone simply because they are human? Should it be dictated by the situation?

Empathy, as I’ve read, is an extraordinarily important trait to have. I love that I’m empathetic. I think it’s one of my best traits. Question is, can you be too empathetic in certain situations?

This is an intriguing question, one that Psychology Today tackled in their June 2015 edition: “The art of empathy requires paying attention to another’s needs without sacrificing one’s own. It demands the mental dexterity to switch attunement from other to self. What turns empathy into a true high-wire act is that its beneficiaries find the attention deeply rewarding. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from someone else’s shoes — and how.”

Relationships get dicey when the person you empathize with is also the subject of your pity. Pity, in my book, is condescending in certain situations, particularly when you feel you have some duty to rescue a person. What kind of need are you fulfilling in yourself acting as rescuer? I ask myself too, would I want someone to hang out with me out of pity, to befriend me because they feel I need help or rescuing?

I suspect this may be the basis of some of the relationships I’ve had in the past. All I know is, they don’t typically work out in the long-run. You inevitably end up resenting the person you’re trying to save or you end up feeling hostile towards the person who wants to “fix” you.

As I’ve matured, I realize that you can certainly help people who ask for it. You should help children, who are in a lot of ways defenseless. Help the homeless. Give your help to organizations that serve the underprivileged. But it’s a slippery slope when you try to foist your help on those who haven’t asked for it and don’t technically need it (read: grown, able-bodied adults).

I mostly help myself these days. That’s all I can do. I don’t rely on others to help me with things about myself I need to work on. I also try not to impose myself on others. This is hard for me as an empathetic person, but it keeps life mostly drama-free.

Your thoughts?

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Great Expectations

“Peace begins when expectation ends.”  — Sri Chinmoy

One of my dear friends has this as part of her email signature. I believe this to be mostly true.

I find I have a lot of expectations about things that may be unreasonable. I have an expectation that the holidays will be a fun time. Well, they are except that a series of unfortunate incidents have occurred over the years that have drawn a veil over Thanksgiving and Christmas, such as my parents falling ill.

I expect to get good grades in school. Yes, until my professor gives me and my classmates a particularly hard final exam and I don’t do as well as I’d like.

I expect that everyone will like me because I try to be a “nice person.”

Oooh. That’s not always the way it goes. Nice is a relative term and what’s nice for one person may not be nice for another. It’s all about perspective.

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Hillary, you’re the inspiration

Every so often, you meet a person who truly inspires you in how they approach life, their attitude about dealing with a chronic illness, and who influenced them to be the best person they can be.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Hillary Turk, a woman who has been battling two types of lung cancer since 2008.

Hillary Turk

Hillary Turk

Hillary works as a therapist in private practice in Farmington Hills and has been treated at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, my employer, for the duration of her illness.

Hillary and I spoke about a lot of things during our interview – her illness and her treatments; her son, Ian; her life and her family; and how her maternal grandmother was a role model for her.

Hillary is the type of person with whom it’s easy to build a fast and warm rapport. At the age of 65, she’s seems (at least for me) to be at the quintessential grandmotherly age – someone who is different from a mother and in some ways better – someone very wise, warm and accepting.

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The beauty of silence

Back in my 20s and 30s, when socializing and grabbing life by the horns was extremely important to me, I lived a very “loud” life. My job as a former reporter was action-packed. My personal life was action-packed. My marriage — which incidentally didn’t last — was action-packed.

Silence photo

It was a fun, dizzying, chaotic, crazy time. I ran from adventure to adventure with hardly a breath. I travelled everywhere – to Europe, to Asia, across this country and back. My head swam with grand schemes. It seems I lived with high drama and in a lot of circumstances, crises.

And then, by my own design, it all stopped. I mean, it didn’t stop immediately. Even as my life continued to be in upheaval, it took me a while to figure out that I could stop living a life tantamount to existing in an airplane hangar, with the plane’s engines going full bore.

There’s been something remarkable about making all of it stop: The silence and tranquility that ensues.

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An homage to my father

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“Don’t play that song for me/‘cuz it brings back memories/Of the day that I once knew/The day I spent with you”

— Lyrics written by Betty Nelson and Ahmet Ertegun; song interpreted by Aretha Franklin

I love music. There are some songs that when they come on, from the very first note, it’s like a religious experience. For me, these songs include “Everyday is like Sunday” by the Smiths; “Everyday I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello; “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles and, going way back, “Kentucky Rain” by Elvis Presley. Those songs have literally worked their way down into my soul.

Another song that’s just magical for me is Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” I think I may have heard it first on the 70s music channel or during the closing credits of 1997 film starring Peter Fonda, “Ulee’s Gold.” I love everything about the song, from the acoustic guitars to the flutes playing the delicate melody.

And though I love the almost-seven minute song, it’s not an easy one to slow dance to, as I found out.

I hadn’t listened to “Tupelo Honey” since the night of November 3, 2001. That’s a long time to go without hearing one of your favorite tunes.

I played it recently and it triggered all sorts of strong memories and emotions in me. It continues to be one of my favorites. I love the lyrics, “You can’t stop us, on the road to freedom, you can’t stop us, ‘cuz our eyes can see, men within sight, men in granite, knights in armor intent on chivalry.”

The last time I listened to that song, and tried to dance to it, was on the night of my wedding. It was the song that I danced to with my father, Robert Dale Carter, who’s been gone now for more than four years.

Is there anything more special to a woman than dancing with her father on her wedding day? I can’t think of many moments more poignant than that.

My relationship with my father, to put in simple terms, was complicated. My father never expressed emotions very well. And it was always difficult for me to talk to him and relate to him.

It’s even more difficult to write about him, considering my complicated emotions I have over my dad. I spent so many years being angry at my father for what he couldn’t express to me. He was a man beset by issues that kept him from expressing things that he felt.

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Farewell, dear companions

On July 4 Eve, I had to make the very difficult decision of helping my cat find her way to the Rainbow Bridge. Anyone who has had to put an animal down prematurely probably knows about the Rainbow Bridge. It’s a poem written about the place animals go when they die.

Don’t read it if you’ve recently lost a pet. You’ll end up in tears – that I can guarantee.

My cat had reached the age where she was disintegrating healthwise in numerous ways – she was senile, arthritic, had allergies, couldn’t groom herself well, used various rooms of my home as her personal litter box and was just about on the precipice of losing whatever continence she’d been holding onto.

Abby was probably more than 20 years old. I was the envy of friends whose cats had only reached their young teens before they left this mortal coil.

Abby

And to be sure, Abby was a wonderful companion. She would lay with me on the couch in the evenings and watch TV. She purred during my before-bed meditations, to help set the relaxed mood. It seemed to make up for all the mornings where she would literally be bouncing off the walls, caterwauling obnoxiously for her moist food.

I cried all the way to the vet and all the way back when I knew that she had reached the end of her life. I was with her when she breathed her last.

As much as she made a mess of my house, day in and day out, I hated to part with her. She had become a part of my regular routine. Feedings in the morning. Following me up the stairs at night to get her treats.

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In Search of Spirituality

I’ve lately been exploring the difference between spirituality and religiosity. I think the two can be blended a bit but on the whole, I believe the concepts are very different. Some people will claim they’re religious while others may prefer to have things be amorphous by claiming they are ‘spiritual.’

I recently returned to church in a quest to more clearly define my “Higher Power” and to show in a symbolic way my appreciation for guidance. Some say that your Higher Power can be anything – nature, a tree, the ‘Universe’ – hell, your HP can even be the muses (OK — that’s a shameless homage to my own blog!).

I like this idea, using what you need to define your Higher Power.

There is beauty in religious ritual. Growing up, I didn’t really appreciate it though. I went through 12 years of catechism and ended up learning more about my own religion through college art history courses and travelling to Italy to explore various cathedrals, to hear the otherworldly sound of monks chanting, and to view the dusky ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Some of these experiences literally brought me to tears.

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In protest of self-improvement – Or learning to accept yourself as is

I recently took a month-long break from working out. It was towards the end of my winter semester at school and things were just getting crazy. I felt little direction from my professor on my final project and other things had begun to spin off wildly as they pertain to various aspects of my life.

Now, I’ve been working out regularly, three times a week, for 13 years. In August, it’ll be 14 years. Some might call this an obsession. Others may call it a distraction. Still others may say what a good habit to have developed.

Anyway, it was a much needed break. It seems so much of my life is automatic, and that’s not always a bad thing per se. Routine saves your brain a lot of energy and you take control of time – it doesn’t control you. You can get a lot accomplished (oh, boy, there’s the voice of my mother!).

BUT, I get into the habit of things, even if it is good, and I forget to take a break to look around and observe things. Sometimes I get mired in the small details of life and fail to see the bigger picture.

The month off was great. I didn’t feel rushed to hurry home after work to fit in a workout. I went to the library after work to find some good books. I had dinner with friends. I unloaded the dishwasher and cleaned up. I cleaned my house, which is workout enough. I moved more towards spiritual conditioning versus physical conditioning

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I’ll be your mirror

How many of us live life, looking into the mirrors of other people’s eyes, perceptions and opinions, trying to find the definition of our own selves within those constructs? I do this sometimes.

It’s challenging, defining yourself on your own terms. I think a lot of us live, wanting other people’s acceptance and approval. We want their applause, their smiles, and their compliments.

Mirror

Mirror Mirror on the wall

Some people are like shattered mirrors. You’ll see no reflection of yourself in their eyes. This can be frustrating, especially if you have expectations of them, however unfounded they may be.

Some people reflect something good back to you and you feel happy and content. This emotion is ephemeral though. And it speaks mostly to one’s own ego.

How might we live a life based on our own definition of self when it’s ever changing? I’ve learned that basing a sense of self on accomplishments is a feeble foundation on which to create the self. Once you accomplish one thing, it’s on to the next thing. It’s like you always have something to prove to yourself.

What if we were all human beings, not human doings?

That’s a challenging task. How do we love ourselves without input from the external world?

That’s one of my goals – being fully actualized without the need for the world’s approval or input.

I’ll let you know when I reach this goal!

A Call to Adventure

I recently returned from a quick business trip to south Florida. I love it when I get to do work in paradise!

I also love to travel alone, namely because it challenges me to get out of my comfort zone big time. I don’t mind rising at 4:30 a.m. to make an 8 a.m. flight. Plus, I kind of like talking to strangers in the airport. We always seem to find common ground when it comes to complaining about the customer service.

Two years ago in June, I traveled to New York City alone. It wasn’t the first time I had been there, but it was the first time I went on my own just for fun.

The idea came to me as I placed one of my fictional characters in the milieu of the Big Apple. It was a spark of inspiration! And, it scared me to no end, thinking of myself in the city alone. I could get mugged. I could lose my wallet. My luggage could go missing. Someone could follow me down a dark alley…. So much could go wrong.

And yet, so much of it turned out absolutely right!

A Room with a View

A Room with a View

My trip to New York City was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken, anywhere, and I’ve taken some pretty great trips — albeit always with a companion.

It was my objective to hit the major art museums while there – the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and a side trip to the Frick Museum, housed in the beautiful Gilded Era mansion on Fifth Avenue.

I also wanted to visit the Neue Galerie at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, a museum that features many of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s work – including his famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (the subject of the recent film Woman in Gold) — but the museum was closed on the day I was up in those parts on the East Side. Damn! And no sachertorte at Café Sabarsky, for which I had been salivating. (Hint: The museum is closed on Tuesdays.)

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