Find Yourself Some Empathy

Recently, in The New York Times, there was a piece about a young entrepreneur who has developed a line of empathy cards that avoid the unhelpful platitudes that traditional “get well” cards typically provide. Instead, these cards, some of which are funny, give voice to the spectrum of emotions that those with serious illness experience, and offer little more than acknowledgement, caring, and presence.

I should have put “little more” in quotes, because these cards deliver what the name promises: empathy, and empathy—the ability to fully share the experience of another—is what is most needed by those with serious illness. It may seem remarkable that a 24-year old came up with this idea, until you learn that she was inspired by her own serious illness, and how frustrating it was to hear that she needed to “hang in there,” “keep fighting,” or accept that “things happen for a reason.”

She learned that the illness experience is largely emotional and intensely personal, and that it cannot be overcome by exhortations or philosophical utterances. What is needed from others is understanding, listening, and often silent friendship.

Nothing like experience to teach you what it’s like to be sick, but fortunately, most of us won’t experience serious illness in our youth. So, how else can we develop empathy? Vicariously, through the experiences of loved ones, or by entering a fictional world created by talented artists who can imagine and convey what it’s like to be sick, well, in love, happy, sad, depressed, confused, depressed, anxious, you name it—what it’s like to be human. In books, music, plays, movies, photographs, paintings, and other artistic media, artists utilize their talent to help us make emotional connections between the art and our own experience.

So, just in case you are young, or healthy, or just lucky enough not to understand serious illness through experience, and especially if you are considering a career in healthcare, do yourself a favor and dive deeply into whatever art form you like best. The topic does not even need to be illness; just immerse yourself in this business of human existence, and you will begin to equip yourself for the time when someone needs your caring presence.

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