Friday, January 20, 2017

Walking in My Shoes: The Healing Power of Empathy

One of the biggest obstacles that those of us who live with mental health or addiction disorders experience is stigma. Stigma is defined as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Synonyms for stigma include: shame, disgrace, dishonor, and humiliation.

This denigrating label has been present virtually since the dawn of mankind. For millennia, those who have suffered from mental illness and/or addiction have been improperly treated and often regarded as second class citizens.

For many who have never experienced the crushing experience of withdrawal or the paralyzing fear of paranoia, it’s hard to understand, not to mention imagine, what it must be like to live with such horrific conditions. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder; these are all conditions that are very subjective in nature. And since they are often behavioral in nature, they can be more difficult to treat.

The word stigma comes from the term “stigmata,” which refers to the marks on Jesus’ hands and feet that were a result of his crucifixion. Which leads me to the concept that Jesus, as a human being, was “marked” as a result of his suffering on the cross.

Now back to stigma. One of the best weapons to defeat stigma is empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It has often been described as the ability to “walk in the other person’s shoe’s” and try to gain a perspective from the other person’s lived experience.

That’s the thing about our world today. There isn’t enough empathy. And I don’t just mean for those living with mental health and addiction disorders. So many of us get so self-centered that we are unable to truly gain any sense of compassion for our fellow brothers and sisters. Compassion is derived from the Latin term “compati” (suffer with). This term is found in essentially every major religion. This universality simply demonstrates the importance of this vital quality of humankind.

There is a certain level of judgment that accompanies stigma which, in turn, gets in the way of compassion. I think David Gahan of Depeche Mode put it best:

“Morality would frown upon
Decency look down upon
The scapegoat fate's made of me
But I promise now, my judge and jurors
My intentions couldn't have been purer
My case is easy to see
I'm not looking for a clearer conscience
Peace of mind after what I've been through”
And before we talk of any repentance
Try walking in my shoes”
Walking in My Shoes
Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)

Jesus was the embodiment of both compassion and empathy. His ability to relate to the suffering of others was so profound that he became a true servant of the people:

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Matthew 9: 35-38.

So how would Jesus respond to the needs of those who are afflicted today? Would he turn a blind eye or ridicule them? The answer is a resounding, “NO!” He would provide the healing that is needed to restore the health of those that needed it.

But, my friends, I believe that there is still hope. There are countless people: professionals, clergy, peers, caregivers and others; all of whom are making a difference. You see, they have empathy. They get it. You don’t have to have a lived experience with a mental health or addiction disorder to gain a true sense of how it feels to suffer.

There’s a great line from the film, “Heart of a Dog,” directed and produced by Laurie Anderson, one of today’s most creative multi-media artists. She is describing the death of her dog Lolabelle and her Buddhist teacher’s response to her despair. He simply said, “You have to learn how to feel sad without being sad.” And that is what true empathy is about. Empathy is a feeling that surpasses the simple belief that people with a lived experience are doomed to suffer and that there is no hope for recovery.

As both an addiction and mental health professional, and someone living with a co-occurring disorder of bipolar disorder and addiction, I have been on both the giving and receiving end of empathy. I know what it’s like to be truly listened to by someone who cares, and in the same respect, I know what it’s like to be present in the moment with someone who is suffering. I know how much it means to have someone express how much they care by being willing to take the time to be with me in my hour of need. And I know how good it feels to be there for someone who may just in need of someone who truly cares about them.

Life is hard. And for those with a lived experience, it can be harder. By demonstrating empathy and compassion perhaps it’s possible that we can all traverse the landscape of life that much easier. We need each other. Now more than ever. Open your heart. Let love both enter and come out. It can be a life changer.

Be well.
Walking in My Shoes (Live)
Depeche Mode

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