Sunday, September 21, 2014

Musings: On Empathy

I'm not going to dive into the definition since I believe most people have an understanding of what the word itself means; however, I want to discuss some aspects of empathy and how I've tried to cultivate it.

The New Yorker explores empathy from its many standpoints, but what struck me the most was that "empathy is what makes us human." What an interesting ontological phenomenon; we need to empathize in order to be human. The Guardian published a piece on Friday noting a difference between empathy and compassion.

Empathy is a prime component of the medical profession. Without acknowledging how a patient's symptoms affect their quality of life or why a patient is struggling adds an extra layer of complexity to diagnosing and treating a patient. In my Lifestyles of Medicine course, I am learning that part of being a physician is being mindful before you even enter a patient's exam room: reminding yourself again and again that you are here for them; it's your job to connect and understand the complexities of both the disease and the symptoms that brought the patient into your clinic on this day. I found this interesting blog from a medical actor (an actor that plays a patient for med students to examine and get scored on). She digs into how, at different periods during the interaction between a patient and their physician, empathy plays a pivotal role in helping the patient both clinically and personally.

I've always been hyper-aware of the feelings of other people. When I was 8 my fourth grade teacher was recently widowed and I scolded a classmate for obliviously asking her about her husband. As a kid, my parents worked so I grew up outside of the house mostly in school (I was put in school very very young). Thus, I had to use my ability to relate to others in order to compile a social circle for myself and make sure I didn't purposely alienate someone. This taught me many things, but I think the greatest gift it has bequeathed upon me is my ability to recognize potential suffering.

One time in high school, during lunch I noticed that a middle school girl (our girls middle school shared a cafeteria with half of the upper school) with bright red hair was sitting on a makeshift table by herself because her friends did not make room for her at the table. I told my friend Rachel that I wanted to invite this girl to sit at our table. Her name was Leisel (I remember it still because the only other time I had heard that name was from the Sound of Music) and I told her that who cares that her friends won't make room for her and that there's always room at our cool high schooler table for her any time.

So why is it that some can muster empathy quite naturally whereas for others it's an emotional mountain to climb? I think as adults it becomes a choice to exercise empathy or ignore it and it's a case-by-case situation. We all have our empathetic moments and some where we wished we had been more present to someone else's feelings. One can definitely cultivate empathy, but our society is not conducive to empathizing with others as easily it used to be. I do not participate in Facebook. I had one of the first accounts in college when only a select number of universities were granted accounts, but I've since realized that I'm better off without it. Primarily because I realize that having friends requires care, time, and effort and I'm glad to invest that in others. I have also noticed that this philosophy has positively impacted my friends as well. To be my friend you have to interact with me. There's no way around that. Phone or in-person communication allows each of us to realize when boundaries are being crossed and when to back off. The act of expressing words is not only therapeutic, but also adds the element of human-ness that is so lacking through technological communication. Talking allows us to release energy and read someone else's energy. You listen to inflection, tone, feeling of another person and that is how you relate to them. (I learned in class that the term is called 'affective listening' and an attribute that physicians should incorporate into their practice as well.)

So concrete ideas and practices of mine:
(1) I don't have facebook--like I stated before, if you want to be my friend and know things about me you have to interact with me. Sorry to be old-fashioned, but there's no way around that. I also would like to note that facebook has its place in society--my cousins in India use it and if I were on it I would perhaps get to follow up with them more than our frequent emails. I think things like social media becomes an issue when it's the prime medium through which we connect with others. In my opinion: in person>phone>email/text>social media relates to happiest>happier>happy>not so happy. There's actual studies about this (refer to 'How facebook makes us unhappy' from the New Yorker).
(2) I write emails, letters, and have phone calls with my friends followed up with in person-contact.
(3) I don't use my phone when I'm having a conversation with someone in front of me.
(4) I never talk or text while driving. Aside from being dangerous, I want whoever is talking to me to get my full attention.
(5) I try to stay off Gchat: Thanks to I've noticed that it's a giant time soak. It does allow me to keep in touch with my friends from different states, but it's tough because even after a long conversation I somehow walk away unfulfilled; we don't react expressively in the same as we do in actual physical good company.
(6) I meditate!
(7) I always question my approach. I think science dictates that we must question our beliefs in order to progress.
(8) Do something. I like to write, but I also like to play piano and tennis and do yoga. It's quite difficult to be on the phone when you're actually doing a real activity; but, what I have also found is that these activities allow me to express myself in many other ways. In tennis, I have to understand and predict my opponent's next move. With piano, I try to go beyond the notes on a page and really see how I can make a piece emotive by the way I play it. This allows me to play a piece of music that can perhaps resonate with someone else that has the same feelings. Writing is pretty therapeutic and important because the ability to express oneself through the written word allows us to engrave on to paper an experience that is engrained in our hearts.
(9) When working, I try to keep my phone on 'do not disturb' mode. This allows me to control my phone, not the other way around. Thus, when I want to call or text someone or respond it is a deliberate act instead of an impulsive reaction.
(10) Here are some things from the Times on teaching children empathy
*I have more tactics. This is just a start!

I'll conclude this post with a clip that basically summarizes my sentiments on this front from comedian Louis CK. "You need to build an ability to just be with yourself."

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