Empathy and openness

June 14, 2012

It occurred to me this morning to wonder whether empathy is what allows us to go from hop-step-hop-step to skipping, what smooths out our perceiving the world from “points” of only what we are taught directly into a connected “line” of understanding.  And then I got to wondering why some people seem to have more of it (empathy) than others — what is it and from what do we get it?

If I were addressing an audience of only people who already had faith, I’d call empathy a facet of the divinity within us and common among and between us.  Instead, maybe I could characterize empathy as a medium, kind of like neutral substance or even space between people but which connects them to one another in communication and understanding (the way nerve endings communicate across synapses or the way planets and stars exist with something inbetween them).  To participate in it, to access this open space that connects us to each other, we have to be open to it ourselves, like participating in a neighborhood block party by opening our garden gate, too.

Some people, I think, have had their gardens trashed by others when they’ve done this in the past, and have not yet been able to access the understanding that there is always help for replanting the garden and healing from the fear that the marauding will happen again.  They close their garden gates and lock them from both sides.  They make do with means of interacting with other people other than through modeling the people and responding to them through empathy.

I think this way of being comes with risks.  The person may promise themselves they will be only self-sufficient and not take from others, but they may actually be listening to the music from another person’s yard during the block party, to extend my metaphor (perhaps past its helpfulness).  They may also discover through some other means that they have the rice that would go with another neighbor’s beans and hence provide greater nutrition to the diners, and they may feel regret that they don’t share it.

Spiritual adepts are sometimes hermits in the physical world.  On the other hand, inversely, they are the most open people on the spiritual planes, their gates are wide open — in fact, they’ve probably taken down whole sections of their entire fences.  They share generously and without keeping books on it.  These people don’t run the risk of amassing debt to others unknowingly because what they want to do doesn’t create the opportunity for debt to occur — they give as a gift, they receive likewise.

The tension arises when someone locked in their garden makes a hole in their fence and “borrows” from a neighbor on the promise it will be repaid.  The neighbor doesn’t reclaim the debt actively, they wait for voluntary repayment.  If it never comes, or only comes in part, they know their garden can be restocked through others’ help.  But they do patch up that hole in the fence.

Sometimes the fence-modifier tries again, makes a new hole in the fence and says, in effect, “Okay, I did this before and it didn’t work out, but just let me take a little more and then I’ll repay it all.”  People generally remain true to their nature, Gita told me last time I saw her.  And in this case, her teaching seems to predict what I have in fact observed:  the person takes again and doesn’t restock the garden or share their rice, they repeat the same pattern as before.

It takes two points to draw a line.  I remind myself of this when I find myself feeling frustrated with myself for giving someone a second chance and finding they have remained true to their nature and we have merely repeated a dysfunctional pattern.  But I can also see that it allows me to be more certain that the relationship really is problematic, it allows me to have fewer regrets or second thoughts, it allows me to let go more completely.  So maybe I get “burned” twice but I also have greater confidence in my perception, and I find that that “second point” allows me to walk away without strings.


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