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Empathy // Rediscovered

by J.P. Prag about a month ago in selfcare / therapy / recovery / personality disorder / humanity / disorder / advice
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Finding the emotions to be fully human for the first time

Photo by MATTHEW HENRY on UNSPLASH

» KEY POINTS

  • One day, something broke... or rather repaired... inside of me.
  • Suddenly feeling empathy for the first time helped me realize that I had been missing so much.
  • There is a massive gap between the compassion I did feel and thought was enough and actual empathy for other human beings.

It was a scene I had witnessed hundreds of times before.

After having been a traveling worker for nearly a decade at that point, I had a regular routine when I got to the airport or train station. While going about my humdrum idiosyncrasies, events like this had played out before me a multitude of times without hardly any recognition on my part. All of it was passé—so unremarkable that I barely even noticed anymore. I scarcely even saw the shapes flowing through the airport or train station as individual people; just categories of objects that fell into my self-stylized buckets. Sometimes I was curious about what they were up to, where they were going, or why they had a particular look on their faces. Overall, though, they meant nothing to me.

Sitting there, waiting for my flight to board, I happen to glance up from my book. A little distance away, two people were embracing as they were saying goodbye to each other. One was boarding a flight while the other would remain here, left behind. It was no different than all of the other occasions I had seen such an event—whether it was lovers, parents and children, long-separated friends, or any other such thing. Yet, something inside of me broke. Or, more correctly, something inside of me finally repaired.

Very suddenly, I felt complete empathy for these people. I sensed their emotions at being torn apart from each other, experienced it so deeply that it was as if it was happening to me. Through my head ran all the times something like this did or could have happened to me, seeing myself literally in the shoes of one of them and the other person replaced with the person I held most dear. These were not nondescript blobs; they were fellow human beings who mattered in the same way I did. I was them and they were me; one ball of shared humanity.

Photo by SUGANTH on UNSPLASH

» MIND THE GAP

It is not as though I did not care about the plights of others before this. While discerning in what I chose to give my energy to, I was concerned about people in all sorts of straits—whether dire or not. This extended not just to those closest to me, but groups of people flung around the world, even complete strangers in far off lands. I am not saying that I was lacking in emotions entirely; just that I was not experiencing them to their fullest.

Photo by DUNCAN SHAFFER on UNSPLASH

Also, I was caring about them, not feeling what they were going through. There is a massive gap between compassion and empathy that I have only come to understand over the ensuing years since that strange moment. What I had before was more akin to sympathy and consideration. Not that these emotions and intents should be discounted, but they are a long way from commiseration and identification. I was an exterior force who was completely separate from what they were undergoing. Starting that day, I became an internal conspirator. They were not alone; we were in it together.

What had happened to me? Why did I suddenly change?

Well, in reality, it was not so abrupt. Without going on a long journey through my entire psychological profile, let us sum it up by saying I lacked stability and guiding influences in my earlier life. From a young age, I learned the only person I could depend upon was myself and used that weapon to keep most other people at arm’s length. Through neglect, I raised myself up from my origins into a successful, mostly functioning human being. I was actualized to the point of even recognizing the scars of my childhood and how I could overcome them, or at least work with them so they did not paralyze me. Altogether, I was doing basically fine.

And that level of triumph breeds complacency. I was not only surviving in life; I was thriving. What I was doing and how I lived had proved successful, so much so that I thought the work I had done on myself was complete. You see, I did not recognize that a chasm like this even existed. I had no idea I was still repressing emotions and not experiencing them as I should.

How could I know that I had cut off so much of my humanity?

» THE “L” WORD

What changed for me is the tritest answer of all: I found someone to love. For the first time in my entire life, I had a stable relationship. Not only did I let someone in, but I also allowed her through my walls and secret passageways. Even my own brother joked that I permitted her into my “Fortress of Solitude”. While I thought I was being so sly, others in my life were quick to recognize where I was lacking. Was I lonely before? I do not know because I had cut off my ability to feel and recognize such a thing. How could I emote for others when I could not even do it for myself?

Photo by KÜLLI KITTUS on UNSPLASH

My now partner unlocked all of the remaining dams inside of me. I tell her all the time that she broke me, but in reality, she helped repair me in a way I did not even know I was shattered. She guided me on my reentry into humankind. It was not an immediate thing; it took years of learning to trust and open myself up to the potentialities. And then—after that fateful day when some synapses clicked together for the first time—I had to keep working at it. Recognizing what was possible was only a first step; I had to learn how to harness my emotions and empathy on a regular basis. Today, I still have to work on it and will always have to do so lest I forget and regress again.

In order to be a fully formed person, my first step was to recognize and accept the failings of my past. But they do not define me; they are just a reference point to acknowledge how far I have come. Now I can see and understand how far I have yet to go, when before it was a world beyond the pale that might as well have been like trying to picture a 17-dimensional object.

And if you, reading this now, are not feeling this as if you are me, then I want you to know that there is something more, something you may not even realize you are missing. But there is no need to agonize over it! Just learning that it exists may be all that is necessary to help you take a small step towards that healing realm.

Just know: you do not need to be walled off from the world and alone inside in order to survive.

The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.

Have the troubles of our age ripped us apart more than any point in history? Or has it forever been this way?

Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.

selfcaretherapyrecoverypersonality disorderhumanitydisorderadvice

About the author

J.P. Prag

J.P. Prag is the author of "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of... Exonerating Professional Wrestling's Most Hated". Learn more at www.jpprag.com.

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