I am a pathological liar.
Every day, sometimes several times a day, I lie. I look into your eyes and, with a natural smile, create a sort of fiction. The reason: I know it’s what you want to hear. So to avoid bogging you down with the full weight of my truth, I kindly oblige in a myth.
a behavior of habitual or compulsive lying.
I am a pathological liar and, chances are, you are too. Every day we are all asked the same question, in various forms by various people, usually with good intentions.
“How are you?”
It’s become so common that it’s no longer a question but a simple greeting. Our brains naturally equate it with words like “hey” or “hello”.
“Hey, how are you?”
“Hello , how are you doing today?”
These words flow automatically from our consciousness without the essential implications and weightiness of the question. Many times, we respond within a second of the words being uttered. Sometimes, we take a moment, perhaps just a breath, to decide whether or not we should tell the truth. Of course, in the end, we all revert to our instinctive and well-rehearsed lie:
“I’m good, thank you.”
“I’m doing well.”
“I’m great. And you?”
Maybe this doesn’t relate to a lot of people. Maybe you are actually “doing well” most of the time. Maybe I’m a bit of a melodramatic with a negative mindset: someone who just needs to “think positive”. Whether I am or not, know that when I ask this three word question, I don’t want a one word answer.
I actually want to know how you are.
If I ask you how you are, it’s because I care to know. Chances are, I’ve already looked in your eyes, noticed your body language and it has given me some sort of indication of the answer I expect from you. Chances are, if I thought you were “fine” or “good” or “blessed”, I just wouldn’t have asked. Don’t get me wrong – if you are all of these things, I’m happy for you, but when you’re not, I want to know why. I don’t want to sympathize with you.
feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
I don’t want to pity you. I am asking for a chance to join you in empathy. Some days we may not be “great” or “good”. Some days we may not feel “blessed”(even though we are). It’s on those days, the ones that aren’t quite fine, that the vulnerability of empathy can heal us. There is a saying that tells us “misery loves company”. While this idiom comes with a lot of negative connotation, it bears a lot of truth. It is based on this idea that, just because someone is unhappy, that person desires to drag others down to join them. Although this is sometimes true, I believe we can find more helpful meaning in this phrase.
In science, the concept of conduction is common when considering energy, particularly heat energy, transfer. Now, before you start snoring, hang in with me for a moment. The idea behind conduction is, when two objects meet and both are at different energy levels, they touch and the objects transfer energy until they reach equilibrium.
the process by which heat or electricity is directly transmitted through a substance when there is a difference of temperature or of electrical potential between adjoining regions, without movement of the material.
An example of this is picking up a hot pan. When your hand touches the pan, your nerve endings sense the heat energy in the pan begin to transfer into your hand. Your brain wants to maintain the normal temperature of your body and instinctively draws your hand away from the pan. Through the process of conduction, heat energy would transfer from the higher gradient to the lower gradient until both temperatures were the same. In order to meet in the middle the pan would transfer half of the heat difference to the skin until they reached the same temperature. Consider this concept of conduction, this transfer of energy. Is that not similar to empathy?
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Often, sympathy is associated with compassion and love for another. Although care and concern are definitely necessary, sympathy is defined as a “feeling”, therefore I would not equate sympathy with love because love does.
Jesus was “moved with compassion”. We are moved by what we love. We are challenged to act when we love. ( Matthew 9:36)
While a sympathetic person is willing to look on your “misfortune” and feel for you, an empathic person decides to share your “misfortune”, to feel with you. This is what makes empathy an “ability”.
Psychologist Brené Brown once exemplified the difference between empathy and sympathy in this way:
Situation: A friend has fallen into a dark pit.
Sympathetic Response: You stand at the top of the pit and offer condolences.
Empathetic Response: You climb into the pit along with your friend and share in the discomfort.
While both sympathetic and empathetic responses reveal a person that cares, there’s a measure of vulnerability and self sacrifice that empathy reaches that sympathy can not touch. While sympathy offers to stand next to you, empathy offers to hold your hand. Empathy requires a greater bit of vulnerability; in the moment, we too are exposed to the pain that our loved one is facing. That is the main point of feeling empathetically; if we can share a loved one’s pain, perhaps we can decrease it, even if just a little. If we, as conductors, let someone transfer a bit of their hardship onto us, their load is lightened. This is the grandeur of human connection.
When we humans connect, we feel a safety that transcends the state of our being.
No matter what situation we are in, we are not alone, and because we are not alone we will be alright. This is the point of empathy. Empathy is the creation of human connection where a connection does not yet exist simply for the purpose of comforting one in pain.
If misery loves company, then love should become company to a loved one’s misery.
We ask and are asked this simple question every day: “How are you?” In these three words range a myriad of opportunities for human connection, for empathy… for love, but these opportunities are too often lost to the fear of vulnerability, the state of being vulnerable.
susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.
We often avoid this question because of this fear of vulnerability. Perhaps we don’t want to open up. Perhaps we don’t trust the person asking. Perhaps we don’t think they really care to know. Whatever the reason, we rationalize in our minds until we believe the lie in our answer. We brush shoulders with the hurting and instead of reaching out and grabbing a hand, instead of hurting together, we confine ourselves to the solitude and “safety” of our own pain. We choose the security of isolation over the vulnerability of empathy.
I no longer wish to be a pathological liar.
I am a human conductor.
I love you.
Let me be the company of your misery.
And so that I am not a hypocrite, I will try my best to be honest and vulnerable with you, too.