I had big plans for the weekend, and so much enthusiasm for the day that I practically leapt out of bed and started tending to the items on my list. By midmorning, I was facedown on the living room floor, unable to move, let alone proofread my manuscript or drive to the property management office for our appointed meeting.
Each time I tried to do anything, all the muscles in my back would tighten in a vise-grip around my spine and render me immobile. Simple tasks became arduous endeavors, something akin to scaling the slopes of Denali.
This episode of debilitating back pain reminded me of a man I had scene in the waiting room of a medical office almost ten years ago. He was a giant of a man, maybe 6’7″ tall, weighing 300 lbs. Under normal circumstances, he seemed to be the type who would have been jovial, laughing from his belly and enticing everyone to join him. When I encountered him that day, he was rigid with pain. Every movement left him gasping, and near crying. He looked at me, eyes glazed yet sharp at the same time. “I just want it to stop,” he said.
That man has been in my thoughts since Saturday. I feel like I understand him and that moment in his life so much better now that I have the slightest taste of what he was going through.
It brings me to this question: can we be truly empathic to what someone else is going through without having analogous experiences?
I realize the concept of empathy is a rather modern one, not yet celebrating its sesquicentennial. For me, it is distinct from sympathy in that the observer tries to step inside the skin of the observed, and understand that person’s / entity’s experience from the inside out. In this life where our cities work to anonymize us, and some of our relationships are disconnected and superficial, being empathic maybe makes us a little more human, and a little less animal or viral meme.
Right now, as I try to imagine sitting up straight without doubling over, I have a much different perspective on that man in the waiting room and other people who are suffering from chronic pain.
For a wee more on empathy:
– Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy
– The Introduction of the Word “Empathy’ into English
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