Roadtrip Conversations and the Power of Empathy

I had a powerful conversation this week with an old and cherished friend I hadn’t seen in far too long.  How is it that the movement of life can carry you along on your journey, seemingly away from those real and pivotal relationships, until one single rogue wave brings you right back in front of each other, and it was like you were never separated?  How amazing is that?  The best part is that it feels like no time has passed.  You pick up exactly where you left off, not missing a beat but just filling in the puzzle pieces of each other’s lives since your last encounter.

The rogue wave that thrust my friend and me back in each other’s way was the ragic and sudden death of our mutual friend’s beautiful 18 year old daughter.  She was killed in a car accident. (The photograph at the top of the page was the view from the site of her accident.)  Her truck hit the ditch and went up in flames.  ‘Just like Joan of Arc’ her broken but courageous mother said at the funeral.   This devastating news knocked the air out of my lungs as soon as I read it.  My friend and I connected almost within moments of discovering what had happened and agreed to travel the three hour journey to her funeral together.

Our road trip conversation started the minute we put the car in drive and none of it was frivolous small talk.  We got right stuck in about the important stuff.  We discussed the tragedy we were about to confront, how we felt about it, how our friend was doing, and what she might need.  We both had fallen out of regular contact with our her, but the idea that we wouldn’t be there at her daughter’s funeral to bear witness to her loss, her daughter’s life, and show our love and support was never an option.  We packed two boxes of tissue and had not worn mascara, prepared for the mess of emotions which would overwhelm us all day long.  We talked about this girl and our memories of her as a wee one.  We cried for her life that was too short and for our friend and her brother and father, who would all now live, missing her forever.  We talked each of the losses of our own babies, cried for them both and for own hearts which would also never totally heal.  We spoke of how these experiences changed us, and our views of the world.  We shared about our work and future passion projects just fledgling yet in our minds.

In a nutshell, we had meaningful conversations. We felt the other’s story, not just heard it.  We connected.  Just like we always have. It was affirming and energizing and brilliant, even in these most horrific of circumstances.  We marvelled at this experience of reconnecting.

“The key” said my wise and brilliant friend, ” is the heart connection.  And that happens because of a strong sense of empathy.” We agreed that this empathy is not common in people.  We are taught to be sympathetic, to look in from the outside with head a-tilt.  Instead of jumping into the fray and getting messy there, we stop.   We halt just short of getting too involved for fear we might let the other person’s experience affect us too much, and we might feel too much.  We don’t want to give too much.  The effect of that would be…..what exactly?  We might get real???  Our mask might drop, and then look out!  We would be exposed with our truth out on display.  Now that is scary.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer speaks about this in her poem ‘The Invitation’.

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself.  If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.  If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

What has become increasingly apparent to me over the past year, and what arriving into the open arms of my devastated friend showed again, is that empathy is so incredibly vital to healing.  It is a key ingredient.  In fact, I would argue that healing cannot happen without it.  Empathy is as vital to healing as is sun and water to a germinating seed.

Brene Brown conveys this message in an animated short film which is sheer brilliance.  See for yourself.

 

Now be honest.  Are you the person down there in the pit, or are you the one looking in from the top with the sandwich?

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