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Activating our communal empathy

One of my great role models, Brene Brown talks about the difference between Sympathy and Empathy. She explains that sympathy is when I'm relating to someone who has a different experience than my own, yet despite the differences I can feel caring, sympathy for their plight or experience. Empathy however, is where I relate to another person and despite their experience being different. I can understand, feel connected to and sensitive to their emotional experience that is underlying the surface level experience which may be different to my own. Brene teaches that to practice authentic empathy with others, I need to dig within myself and become self aware of my own inner emotional world and experiences in order to truly connect, and have empathy for another's emotional experience. 

Brene also notes that naturally, sympathy evokes shame in the recipient because he/she is different or even at times less than and is receiving sympathy for that different experience. The recipient of genuine empathy however, feels seen, understood, validated and cared for.

Sympathy is relatively easy and feels good. Empathy is more difficult. 

To illustrate this idea and how it affects community structures, I'll bring you briefly into my world a little. Through my own lived experience, I currently work in the addiction recovery space and together with a group of passionate volunteers we’re working at building a new Jewish community based service. Something that has been coming up a lot for me in this work is seeing how both community members and leaders don’t like to openly and honestly talk about the issues surrounding addiction, drug use, emotional challenges, trauma and maladaptive coping skills in our community. This lack of open and honest talk supports a culture of shame and presents the journey towards healing and recovery to feel impossible for many, but more on that another time.

When it comes to social causes or challenges in our community that we look to support and help create progress and change around - how do we feel about the issues presented and why? I want to explore that a little because I think identifying this can be key to real lasting social progress.

Aside from Religious and cultural causes, a few important and popular social causes that come to mine include: The less fortunate in Israel, the elderly, those struggling with school or camp tuition, those struggling with food insecurity, those in need of medical care and people experiencing temporary financial hardship.

I think there's something important that all of these important and popular causes have in common. These causes receive support from people who care about and want to support the less fortunate, those who lack something, those who have a different experience than their own. For example, if I have financial security and extra funds on hand - I can find it meaningful and fulfilling to be supportive of those less fortunate than me. A similar social construct can be seen in most social causes that we are passionate about or supportive of as a community.

What happens when a cause is presented that actually affects us in some way? Or if it doesn't affect us, it affects a family member of ours or a friend of ours? And if it doesn't affect us personally in some way, what if the cause affects those who don’t lack material resources? What if those affected are just like me? What if they are not less than or any different to me? What if we in fact struggle with a lot of the same or similar issues?

Enter the challenging world of mental health, enter the world of emotional trauma, enter the world of painful struggles with addiction. A world where people are vulnerable, humans are in pain and in need of sensitive support - these people are not any different than me, they are not lacking anything obvious, and they are often not coming from any less fortunate circumstances, they may be more fortunate than us in many ways. And what if there’s no quick fix to solve the challenge? No medication that works? No check that solves the crisis? No quick stay at a rehab facility that solves everything? There’s no visit to a psychiatrist to get a diagnosis that solves the issues.

Can I allow myself to dig within my own emotional world and open my heart to feel connected to and compassionate for and relate to another humans challenging experience without “othering” them? Rather actually relating to another humans pain? 

Have I experienced deep grief? Terrible Loss? Deep sadness? Overwhelming Fears? Am I willing to look within my own experiences to actually care for and be sensitive to how difficult and overwhelming another human's pain may be? Another person's experience will always be different, but can I dig within myself and find the similarities from where I can begin to relate to and feel genuine compassion despite the differences? 

I may not be a heroin or meth user, but can I connect within myself to the emotional challenges and difficult life experiences that have led the user to seek relief in such a self destructive way? This may be challenging. Yes, it’s likely much more difficult than supporting a soup kitchen but if we can come to such a place as a community of individuals - we will be able to support hundreds of people in our community who are struggling in the dark and lonely shadows of life. Many of these people are very privileged on the surface, they aren’t very different from us, yet they are in desperate need of sensitive support to help them navigate an often painful and challenging road to recovery.

The world of mental health and addiction recovery is still a stigmatized, often misunderstood and underserved social challenge in our community. We are behind compared to many places around the world, and we’re behind addressing these issues in a meaningful and compassionate way compared to other communities around us. Let’s dig within and create lasting progress because healing is possible and it happens within community structures and spaces. It starts with open and honest empathetic conversations like this.

So what can we practically do? As individuals living in a beautiful, vibrant Jewish community? The next time you hear about someone who's struggling emotionally, instead of looking at them as different and in need of your sympathy, try to look within your own emotional world and find a vulnerable place within yourself from which you can actually relate to the other person and feel connected to their struggle however it may be manifesting itself. Together we can build a more empathetic community that supports healing for us all.

Pinny Super

Founder - Nefesh Healing Melbourne


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