Tony Doherty. Remaining balanced in times of tragedy and turmoil.

Dec 18, 2014

Our ability to hang on to sanity and some sense of equilibrium this week has been sorely tested. In the face of scarcely imaginable acts of violence – right in the city’s heart, Martin Place, the balance of our emotional lives could be endangered. The press sifts through the many and various reactions – casual bystanders, politicians, radio commentators, the police. Everyone feels impelled to respond in their own way. A young woman on a suburban train declares her solidarity with Muslims (#illridewithyou) too scared to ride on public transport. Her twitter message goes viral.

Recently when thinking about our personal responses to recent tragic events, such as the death of Philip Hughes. Martin Place, the Pakistan massacre, I came across a distinction which I found interesting and not a little helpful for a priest frequently called to face sudden tragedy. The distinction described three very different ways to sense another person’s feelings. Three kinds of empathy.  (Daniel Goleman. Dgadmin)

The first is ‘cognitive empathy’ – imagining how another person feels and what they may be feeling. Trying to conjure up what it would be like going through a 17-hour hostage situation, held captive by a deranged man with a gun. Placing yourself in their shoes, in your mind, at least.  This is a fairly intellectual exercise of fellow-feeling. Crisis professionals, when faced with day-by-day trauma, sometimes, but not always, protect their balance in this way. They form a protective shell around their emotions simply to allow them to operate effectively.

Then there is ‘emotional empathy’ – when you feel deeply along with the other person, as though such emotions were contagious. This form of empathy leaves a feeling of being drawn into another person’s inner emotional world, as a parent is in touch with their own child. One downside of such emotional empathy occurs when a person lacks the ability to manage their own emotional distress limiting the proper care that can be offered to the one suffering. It becomes a tightrope between appropriate detachment and excessively emotional involvement or, on the contrary, turning your back and searching for some form of mindless distraction.

But there is another level of empathy – ‘compassionate empathy’, when we not only understand another’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed. Simply speaking to do something. Genuine compassionate empathy occurs when one doesn’t allow emotional empathy to overwhelm and paralyse, but frees a person up to act and do something.

The most homely example is what we face when someone dies.  We recognize quiet rationally the grief experienced by the death and loss. We can be drawn into that grief in a very personal way. But we can act to support the grieving person – say by bringing a casserole. The gift of food is traditionally a powerful expression of compassionate empathy. The Eucharist reminds us food is also a powerful symbol of hope – an anchor for our spirit.

Finding the appropriate way to act in response to the Martin Place tragedy could be a vital step towards a saner and more balanced life and a more human future for us all.

Is there any wonder that the simple act of accompanying a young frightened woman on a train struck a universal nerve?

 Tony Doherty is the Parish Priest at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, Rose Bay.  

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