True Empathy

By Anthony Gold

When I was about eight years old, I was riding on a bike with a friend of mine. He was pedaling, and I was sitting on the handlebars with my feet on the axle that protruded from both sides of the front wheel. It was a glorious spring day that would soon end in agony.

I was barefoot, and when we hit a bump, my right foot bounced from the axle into the spokes of the spinning wheel, which then jammed against the fork causing the bike to instantly stop and flip over.

The pain was excruciating.

You likely winced as you read this story of my trauma. And the reason you winced is because the human brain is programmed to react to trauma like this as if you had experienced the pain yourself.

Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) research demonstrates that the pain centers of our brain react identically when either our fingers are pricked with a sharp needle or when we observe another person experiencing the same pain.

If you’ve ever watched someone’s hand get slammed shut in a car door, you know exactly what this is like.

But this only works if we recognize the pain the other person is experiencing. Which is easy when we see things like toes caught in a bicycle wheel or a hand caught in a door jamb. The pain is obvious – it is right there in the open for all observers to witness.

But what about internal pain?

Turns out we’re not so good at recognizing that in others.

Research shows that the more we are focused on our own feelings and personal sense of well-being, the less we can empathize with the internal suffering of others.

Yet deep-down everyone is seeking for affection, attention, and warmth. In some it’s obvious, while in others it may seem deeply buried. In the sage words of Dr. Ken Wapnick, “Inside of everyone is a frightened little child that is crying out for love. Some people express that in socially appropriate ways while others deal with it in socially unacceptable ways.”

But when we can see the pain in everyone, we can respond in what the Course refers to as “true empathy”. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Philo, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll explore the nature of true empathy and how we can see the divinity within everyone – including ourselves. I look forward to seeing you then.

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