Empathy is such a crazy, weird thing. It’s often uncontrollable, and more powerful than you’d ever imagine. It can sneak up on you when you least expect it. Some people have a limited capacity for empathetic reactions, and some people have just way too damn much. Me, I’m in the latter category. It can be a challenge to balance out empathy and self-preservation. Empathy has proven itself to be quite troublesome, really.
Working in customer service provides me with endless chances to provide an empathic ear to those with whom I come in contact. I really do love my job, because it’s pretty simple, and I get to interact with people. I have multiple opportunities daily to hopefully bring a smile to someone’s face, and perhaps even change the direction their day has taken up to the point where we’ve connected.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, a customer will come in and have a profound effect on me, instead. It can be that someone discussed how their best friend lost his wife a month ago, last week found out his mother has cancer, and then last night, his brother was murdered. Or, someone just really needed to vent about having a horrible day at work. Whatever the case, sometimes, humanity slaps me right in my empathy bone, and I try so very hard to allow them to see that they’ve had this effect on me. Embracing my own humanness is just as important as encouraging others to embrace theirs, perhaps more so.
Recently, an older woman came in, and she was so cheerful, it just made me light up. We had a chit-chatty conversation, asking about one another’s holiday plans. When we got around to discussing New Year’s Eve, I explained that it was my wedding anniversary, and we’re boring homebodies, so we’d likely be snuggled up on the sofa, watching movies and dumb stuff on YouTube. To this, she smiled such a genuine smile, I was honestly a bit confused. Then she told me that she was a widow, and that she used to do that with husband, as well, on New Year’s Eve.
I braced myself for the impact of what was sure to be a heart wrenching story. I tried to minimize my empathetic response.
But then she started talking about how beautiful her 48-year marriage was. She told me how he’d died just two years prior, and how, during his illness, most of their friends and family fell away, so she’s mostly alone during the holidays now, and that’s hard. She related this incredible sadness to me, but with a smile. A genuine smile that reached all the way up to her eyes.
In telling her story, her focus was on the beauty, the rare connection she had made with this man, that was unrivaled. She was determined to spend the rest of her life, not grieving, but relishing the experiences she’d had, shared, with her husband. She saw his death as just another step in the process of loving another human being with everything you are.
And though I’d braced for it, my empathetic response went crazy. I felt that all-too-familiar knot in my throat signaling that I would begin to cry soon. I fought the tears back while she was in the store, smiling though it hurt, because I felt her experience. I felt her pain and joy. I reveled in the wonders of her life and love with her.
When she left, I did cry for a short bit, before gathering myself and continuing on about my day. I was mildly embarrassed by this at first, because who does that? Who cries at work because a person told a very human story? Well, I do. That’s the thing.
I’ve tried many times in the past to control my empathy, to minimize it in order to protect myself, and to move away from the powerful emotions that empathy brings along for the ride. Oddly, I’ve previously viewed it as a weakness. But I know better now. I know my empathy is one of my strongest gifts, and to quash it would be shamefully tragic. I deserve to experience the full range of my emotional process, and frankly, that woman deserved to have someone share in her emotional process, even if only for a few moments.
Once she left, our conversation stayed in the forefront of my mind for the remainder of the day. I told my husband about it, and cried while I told him. I said, “What a rare and beautiful thing, to be able to say that you’ve loved, and been loved, with such ferocity that you can only celebrate that you were lucky enough to experience it, rather than grieve the fact that it’s over.”
Turns out, the trouble with empathy is only that I was trying to stop it, rather than being myself in all my glory. I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake again any time soon.