Empathy Saves Lives

Empathy Saves Lives

Many of us have a network of friends and family who serve as an unconditional support system. They are willing to hold our hand through thick and thin. Their faith, love, and friendship guide us when we are overwhelmed by our emotional turmoil. Some of us are not that lucky.

A man in my apartment building committed suicide last month. He jumped to his death from the 12th floor. Although I did not know him personally, I am haunted by the thoughts of the deep sorrow that he must have suffered to end his life with such brutality. I learned that he was one of the friendliest tenants. He frequently shared a laugh, bantered about sports, and supplied the building staff with sandwiches and other comfort foods. Of all the people in the building, the doorman would have never suspected that this would be the one to take his own life. He sighed, “you never know what’s going on.” The man’s pain had gone completely unseen.

If only someone had understood that he was drowning in despair. Perhaps a call to a suicide prevention hotline would have saved him. Compassion has the power to pull us through those times when the path ahead seems too daunting and lonely.

I remember, years ago, calling my cousin in tears from my dormitory payphone, feeling terribly homesick and wanting to leave. Though he could not rescue me right then and there, he empathized with my loneliness. He assured me that I would adjust; that I could call him any time; and that he himself had overcome a similar experience. He helped me see the possibility of various positive outcomes. His words made me feel connected, and lifted me out of my isolation.

Modern life has created ways for us to be in constant contact without feeling connected. Our culture’s relentless consumerism creates an intense competition that prevents us from truly seeing and hearing each other. We regularly size people up, looking for clues as to how we compare. In our conversations, our minds are racing with thoughts about what we will say back, instead of trying to understand what the other person is telling us. Listening in a way that allows someone to be heard is now an underrated, lost art.

To exist is to be heard and to be seen. When we are denied these fundamental emotional needs, we feel invisible and inconsequential. I believe that we can train ourselves to fully listen to one another. During an exercise in a meditation class, I was instructed to pay full attention to a partner’s five-minute monologue without responding. My mind was hence released from engaging in the usual habit of forming a reply. I was able to hear my counterpart in this exercise without judgment because I was primed to only be open to her words. I was surprised to discover that I experienced true empathy for her and her story.

Generous understanding and genuine empathy come forward when we listen attentively, creating a means of connecting. Give the gift of validation and understanding. You never know whose heart you will touch.

© 2015 Mila Atmos, as first published in Quartz

Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.

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