As an Employment Counsellor at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, I help to support people, many of whom have also experienced their whole life change in an instant. They must learn to live in the world in a different way. Each person comes with unique life stories and ways of coping with challenges – accepting, goal-oriented, motivated, angry, resentful, self-blaming or over compensating. Unless someone has gone through your experience it is impossible to truly understand, but you do not have to understand to remain present in empathy for that person.
We admire people for strength in the face of challenges but at the same time, would it not be the ultimate strong human interaction for people who are struggling to reach out and say, “Help me, try and truly see how I am feeling. I feel desperate. I feel hopeless.” And for others to do what they can from their heart, instead of avoiding the discomfort that comes with seeing others in pain.
Many people are not comfortable being naked with their emotions, unless it is with their loved ones or therapists. And many find it awkward to witness others’ “nakedness”. This experience can be wonderful and frightening at the same time. I know it from both sides. Research consistently shows that being vulnerable is not a weakness, on the contrary, it is vital for creativity, relationships and so much more. This is not easy for many of us to deal with. We say to the person in pain “Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do?” But often, all someone needs is simply to have the other human being there to listen and be a “wailing wall” witness to their struggle, whatever that may be.
What if most of our society valued coming together as a community to share pain as a strength, and I am not speaking of fundraisers or group therapy. Can you imagine how different a workplace would be if there were not so many masks worn when a co-worker is struggling?
The idea of having a shared consciousness that bonds all of us together may sound too new-agey for some people but it is not a radical idea to accept our connection as human beings and put ourselves in each other’s skin from time to time. I strongly believe that increased empathy in the world can create a seismic change.
I become frustrated, sad and angry every time I watch yet another news story about a young person who has been bullied and nothing was ever acknowledged or done until it was too late, when girls who look different than the admired ‘norm’ are ridiculed, when people are swayed by hateful and false stereotypes of people who have disabilities or are from other cultures and races. I know that we, as humans, will never live in a Utopian paradise. It is a world steeped in the antediluvian murk of emotion, personal histories, pain as well as joy, curiosity and discovery. We are not blank slates. We are affected by all that we experience and more than likely some of what our parents experienced before we were born. All the best intentions can go awry. The only thing to do is to keep striving to be better. To behave better.
So, what can we do realistically? We can take individual responsibility to be honest, sensitive and courageous in our interactions, and this is not Utopian thinking. We can do it in smaller groups, for example, at your workplace, at the clubs you belong to, between friends and acquaintances.
I admit, I have been prone to judgment and cynical thinking, rants and anger many times over. The vision I have is about consciously stopping for a moment and striving ever harder to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. On what basis do we want the world to function now and in the future? I know with certainty that empathy, which is learnable, is a magic wand and a healing balm which has the potential to change so much.
Carmit Kordov is an Employment Counsellor at SCIO