22
JUN
2013

Secret Empathy Agents

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All the seats are empty and I’m alone in a windowless room with abrasive florescent lights piercing down from above.  I’ve just finished a presentation on Nonviolent Communication and Interpersonal Neurobiology.  It’s a new style of presentation for me, one that finishes with my promoting my workshops.  I’ve put hours and hours into learning and practicing this style of presentation and it hasn’t gone well.  Not one person signed up for a workshop.  My inner critic is pulling on some boxing gloves.  My inner victim is craving some junk food.  My inner empathizer (aka compassionate self-witness) looks like he hasn’t eaten or slept for days.  Things are about to get ugly.  I pull out my phone and begin calling empathy buddies.  Eventually, I find an empathy buddy who is available and I get support to embrace the sensations in my body, my feelings of disappointment and discouragement, and my needs for self-acceptance, perseverance and believing in myself.  The power of empathy to get me through tough times never ceases to amaze me.

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.  Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
~ Soren Kierkegaard

Towering skyscrapers with endless glass reflect the city back to itself.  I’m in downtown Vancouver waiting for a bus when I get a call from a friend.  She’s had a difficult time with her performance in the first half of a play.  Adding extra pressure to her pain is the not-so-supportive feedback she’s received from her mother who has come to see the play.  It’s intermission and she’s looking for empathy before going back on stage.  I give her empathy for about ten minutes before my bus arrives.  My friend tells me that her body has relaxed and the ten minutes of empathy have made a huge difference.  I wish her well and climb onto the bus, imagining how challenging it would be to perform in a play with unresolved attachment issues bubbling up inside.  As good as it feels to have someone give me empathy when I need it most, it’s equally sweet to give it to a friend in the midst of her turmoil.

“A ship is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.” ~ William Shedd

I’m making lunch for myself when my phone rings.  A friend is halfway through a workshop he’s facilitating and is looking for some empathy.   He’s having a hard time with one of the participants.  I’ve had my share of challenges with workshop participants and all kinds of suggestions come to mind.  But he’s not asking for suggestions; he’s asking for empathy.  So I set aside my suggestions, give him my full attention, and reflect back his needs and feelings.   After he’s finished, I ask him if he’d like to hear a suggestion from me.  He says yes.  I tell him my suggestion and ask him if it’s helpful.  He’s says he’s not sure if the suggestion is helpful (it probably wasn’t) but the empathy is.

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

I can tell by the tone of my friend’s voice that she needs some emergency empathy.   She’s calling during a lunch break (lunchtime is a good time for emergency empathy) at a retreat she’s co-facilitating.   Her co-facilitator is making choices that are difficult for her and for some of the participants.  My friend is trying to attend to the many levels of needs and feelings that are coming up for the participants, for her co-facilitator, and for her.  I wonder if she feels like she’s juggling grenades and puppies while a sergeant barks at her to clean the latrine with a toothbrush.  I have my own challenging co-facilitation stories I could share with her, but she’s not asking to hear those; she’s asking for empathy.  So I listen to her and reflect back the feelings and needs that I guess are alive for her.  Eventually her nervous system calms down and she’s ready to go back to the retreat.  I go back to my lunch wishing I could teleport to the retreat and be her empathy bodyguard.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” ~ Victor Frankl

I’m back in the same room with the windowless walls and florescent lights-they seem a little less harsh this time.  I’ve just finished another one of my presentations on Nonviolent Communication and Interpersonal Neurobiology.  Everyone has left.  I’m sitting amongst the rows of chairs feeling awed and slightly dazed.  My body feels like a rocket that is just beginning to lift off.  “I hit it out of the park!” are the words that come to mind.  There was lots of laughter and some tears and many appreciative comments.   I could almost see light bulbs going off in people’s heads as I helped them understand what happens in relationships.  At one moment there was a spontaneous “go Eric!” from an audience member.  Several people registered for a workshop.  Nonetheless, I sense limiting thoughts approaching, like ninjas slipping through shadows, familiar thoughts about how it’s not ok to be too big in the world, to really shine, to be powerful.  I want to bury the thoughts and feelings with a big fat muffin, heated up and smothered with butter.  I pull out my phone and begin calling empathy buddies.

“Ever wonder what crime you committed that you are confined to a small enclosure above your sinuses, under permanent skull arrest? ~ Robert Brault

I love the deeper empathy work that my empathy buddies and I do when we set aside time to do more focused transformative work.  But there is something special for me about the emergency or spontaneous empathy we give to each other.  I think it appeals my inner adventurer, the one who wanted to be a spy when he was a boy and loved being a white water kayaker and river guide in his twenties.   I like to imagine we’re secret empathy agents, dropping into implicit territory, opening our hearts and covering each other’s backs.

“Let him cry whoever feels like cryiing, for we were animals before we became reasoning beings, and the shedding of a tear, whether of forgiveness or of pity or of sheer delight at beuty, will do him a lot of good.” ~ Lin Yutang

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