Emotions as Tools: Feel Your Interactions

Friday night 10:19PM, my mother is in the emergency room: she feels like she can’t breath; she’s not getting oxygen. Six years of cancer treatments led her to this day. Her body is giving up. My sister and I try to comfort her; all I can do is just stand there. She’s in pain. The nurse gives her a shot of morphine to help. That was it. The shot relaxed her enough, she quit fighting to breath and in five minutes she died. The shot only sped the inevitable. Her body had already quit. The doctors wanted to try and keep her alive, and I was the one that said, “Let her go. She’s done.” I went home and cried like I have never cried before. Crying so deeply that I couldn’t breathe. I sat in the shower for two hours and couldn’t stop. Only twice in my life have I experienced crying at that depth.

Change scenes. It’s 2PM on a Saturday. Beautiful music is playing. Double doors swing wide open across the room from where I’m standing. I’d prepared for years just to experience this day and for months getting the final stages of planning in place. As the music crescendos, I look to the other side of the room and there, dazzlingly beautiful, is my soon-to-be wife. I watch her walking down the aisle and I begin to cry. I can do nothing but just stand there. What an indescribable beauty my wife displayed on our wedding day…absolutely stunning. With tears coming down my face, I took her hand and 24 years later, I have only grown in my love for her. I have a beautiful bride to this day.

I share both of these experiences because these are sources of empathy. When I know someone who is going through difficulty, how do I cry with them in their distress? I cannot feel what they feel. I cannot begin to fully grasp their hurt, but I can return to my own. I can use my memory to carry me back to a time of anguish and recall how I felt. I can’t feel the overwhelming joy of another person, but I can return to an experience where I was beyond myself in overwhelming happiness and re-live that moment to remember how to share the joy of another. 

Empathy is relational and decisive. To be skillful, we must do at least two steps: be fully present with another and use our past experiences to help us feel. This is a skill, which means it takes practice. Don’t wait to find your most joyful high and most anguishing low: think of them in advance; store them away in your mental catalog. Then, when you need them, you’ll have them ready to use on demand. Enter the world of another by revisiting your own.


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