Monday, March 28, 2011

You can't spell EmpaThy without E.T.

Empathy-the experiencing as one's own of the feelings of another; also: the capacity for this (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, New Edition, 2004)

I have always felt like a very empathetic person.  Even as a child, I always felt like I hurt for other people who were going through things I didn't understand.  I always anthropomorphized my pets, other animals, and (at times, as embarrassing as it is) my toys.  I think an abundance of empathy is a gift posing as a curse--or maybe vice versa.  I think it is important to feel for our fellow humans--and animals--but sometimes feeling too much can be detrimental to one's mental health!  This is why I chose the field I am in--I tried the one-on-one types of career paths--of helping others who I know need my help on an individual level (i.e. working with deaf kids or kids with disabilities).  I couldn't handle any of that.  I empathized too much.  It consumed my life and made me feel way more depressed than I can handle.  So, I'm taking another route--one in which I can help people, but from a more removed level, if that makes any sense.  And the one-on-one interactions I have with teaching college kids (or adults) is better for me.  Even the students with what I consider to be "sad" stories I am able to deal with because I know that they are in college and doing something to better their lives--and the gratification that comes from helping them on that step of their journeys vastly outweighs knowing of hardships for me.

I think I've passed this empathy on to my daughter--not sure if it's biological or social--but it's there. Last night, we watched E.T. as a family. I was a little hesitant at first.  The last time I saw any part of this movie was in 7th grade, the day after my first pet (a cat) died and I sat there and bawled my eyes out as it played on the small tv at the restaurant where my family and one of my closest friends were eating--waiting for the SPCA to open so I could adopt another cat.  So, I figured my memories of the movie were overshadowed by the sad memory of losing a pet as a little girl.

But, K's empathetic nature went into overdrive. She cried and cried.  She even started crying again when she went to bed, saying she didn't want E.T. to go away.  I reminded her it was just a movie--she said she knew but talked about how it made her feel sad.  And this isn't a child who doesn't know what it means to leave a friend.  She's a Marine's daughter--she's left friends, watched friends move away.  She understands and she handles it very well--taking it all in stride.

But her feelings...her feelings are so strong and so REAL. 

So I spent the night feeling guilty for encouraging her to watch the movie.  But then, I had to stop and realize that it's not so bad.  Empathy is not inherently a bad thing--it's a good thing if "used" appropriately.  Now my challenge is to help her use that empathy positively and not let it consume her and bring her down.  Since I don't fully know how to do this myself, it will be a big challenge.  Right now, I'm proud and humbled that my little girl, barely 5 years old, can feel so deeply for another.  She shows this on a daily basis, towards other humans, towards animals, even towards the Earth.  It was just not until we watched this movie together that I truly realized how deeply her feelings run, how she can relate on such a passionate level to "others," no matter who or what those others may be.  And I am hopeful for all that her empathy may lead her to positively experience and the ways it may help her change at least a little corner of the world--she's already changed my whole world for the better!

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