Sunday, May 30, 2010


Sometimes I try on radical ideas to see if they fit. I say radical because it might seem that way to you. It was radical to me when I first tried it on, but I've become accustomed to it, meaning I think it fits, so it is no longer radical to me. But, I am throwing it out at you to see what you think.

Before writing this post, I went to and put this into its search to see what it would spit out: "What is the difference between compassion and empathy?" I had my own ideas before asking the question, but I wanted to see what would give me. Take a minute to ponder it for yourself before reading further.

There are a lot of truths out there. One of them is that no one gets out of this life unscathed. No one gets the perfect life. It doesn't exist. I love that commercial in the fast food joint when the guy steps up to the counter, and asks the customer if he wants his pain now or later. Awesome. That is the truth. You are going to get it sometime. Do you want your pain now or later? Would you like it with a side of cancer or would you prefer verbal and/or physical abuse? How would do you want to learn the lesson that we all die? Do you want to experience the death of a child or would you like your best friend to be murdered? How would you like your pain? Now or later? Do you want it quick and clean with no good-byes in the form of a car accident or a lingering death that is extremely painful? Say lung cancer? Or how about some Alzheimer's for your grandparents followed by your parents with the bonus of knowing that you will be next? So, that means you want your pain now and later, you say? Got it.

That might have sounded really quippy. It wasn't meant to. The point was that everyone gets socked with a bad dose of nasty. Some people are crippled by it. They do not recover. They drown in it. It eats them alive. The horror of whatever bulldozed their life... well, they just don't ever get over it, past it, beyond it. Whatever. So, that pain is all-consuming.

Compassion is having sympathy for someone. It is caring. It is honest to God commiseration for someone else's situation. It is a reaction. Empathy, by contrast, is "literally 'feeling into' - the ability to project one's personality into another person and more fully understand that person (think of an empath.)" When you are empathetic, you tend to be proactive or exercise caution. Stop and think about that. Compassion says I'm sorry that happened. Empathy goes out and kicks ass or at least steps up.

In my opinion, we cannot really be empathetic until we have some sort of first-hand experience of the "problem." For instance, my next door neighbor, Robin, who was my second mom, and someone who I love very much had migraines the entire time I was growing up. I was compassionate about her situation. Of course, I was a kid and I didn't know anything, and I couldn't really have done anything. But still... I didn't truly understand what she was going through until I got my first migraine. I went from compassionate to empathetic like *that.* She had migraines for twenty+ years. At the time, I had one for three days. I wanted to die. Now, I have had them for ten years. I don't even want to talk to you in a doctor's office unless you've had a migraine. Anyone who tries might get drop-kicked by me into next week if they catch me on a bad day. Just sayin.' (That was for you, Kimberly, or maybe it was Elizabeth, ah well ... one of you wrote that post on annoying things like that. It is actually the first time I've used it. Just sayin.' Yeah, I know I said it.)

Moving on to other hot topics... I lived with a verbally abusive husband for years. Never in a million years thought I would have taken that shit. Honestly, I didn't take that kind of bullshit from anyone when I was... well, anytime. I was that irritating person who sent their eggs back if they weren't cooked right. Migraines fuck with you. Pain fucks with you. Of course, what I had going was "the perfect storm." His small kids coming out of an abusive household with their mother. Their father (my husband) who I knew, by then, was verbally abusive. Figured that one out just a bit too late for me, but I was determined to save them. I was circling the damn drain folks. And I knew it. I was determined to give those kids as much stability as I could and then get out before I died. That was my goal. When that time came, I was not strong enough. Did everyone hear that? I was not strong enough. That is what verbal abusers do. They break you down. The goal is to break the spirit of the person so that they do not have the strength to leave. When I say strength, I mean will. In my case, it was both. I was weak from the chronic migraine pain and my spirit was wrecked. There was a body, but no one was HOME. Are you FEELING ME??? Thank God for my mother. She finally got through to me. She called me out. She asked me where I was because HER DAUGHTER WAS GONE. WHERE WAS HER DAUGHTER??? And that was the day that changed my life. That was the day that I walked in the bathroom, shut the door, looked in the mirror, and saw that I was gone. There was a stranger in the mirror. And it has been a journey of reclamation since.

I don't believe in coincidence. Period. I do believe in free will. For some reason, I chose that path that led into an abusive marriage. I hope that I did some good for those kids, but I can't bet the bank on that. I have to think more about what it means in terms of my life. Before I had compassion for people who experienced abuse on any level. Before I didn't understand why people didn't just leave. Before I didn't understand how insidious and manipulative abusers are. They don't just come out swinging with their best stuff first. They work at your foundation. And that is why people stay. Now, I have empathy for people who have experienced abuse. All kinds of abuse. And I have empathy for people who suffer from migraines and chronic pain because I know what that is.

Let me just toss out one more idea before my final volley: what if we pick what we think we can carry? Some of us pick wrong and we can't carry it, and those are the people who are wrecked. But, some of us pick the pain we think we can carry so that we can move from compassion to empathy. Does that change your experience? Does my having gone through an abusive marital situation now have value in that I have moved from compassion to empathy?

Where am I ultimately going with this? Not sure yet. Where do you draw your lines between compassion and empathy? And when something falls into your empathy court, what are you doing with that ball?


  1. Well, you're right - definitely not like my post on roses and chipmunks! :)

    You have such deep thoughts Robin. I love how you are working through pain in your life to find meaning in a way that is so proactive and unselfish. Looking at how you can help others who have experienced similar pain shows great strength on your part.

    I know exactly what you mean about abusive relationships. We think it will never happen to us - but it doesn't happen over night - it is a gradual thing that so undermines who we are that we can go from a position of strength to incredible weakness. And I think maybe there are different times in our lives when circumstances make us more vulnerable than at other times. Thank God for friends and family who can rescue us from situations like that!

    Years ago I was in a horrible relationship with my very first boyfriend. I went from being a fairly happy-go-lucky, gregarious person to finally at the end being so withdrawn and insecure. My boyfriend was so critical of everything I did and so controlling that I had no outside input to figure out that I really wasn't as incapable and helpless as he claimed me to be.

    I'm so thankful for a group of girlfriends who finally intervened and showed me what was happening. Since then, I will NEVER underestimate the value of real friends and family who will stick by through thick and thin. Sounds like you are that kind of person, looking outward from your pain for ways to help other people. You have my admiration.

  2. A very moving post, Robin.

    Yeap, we all choose our pain, don't we? For some reason some of us are drawn to one form or another.

    Then there is numbness...worse than the pain because it obliterates empathy and compassion.

    Take care of your pain. Use it for empathy and for more writing like the one in this post.

    Kisses to you.

  3. Great post and thank you....resonates w/ me on so many levels. :) And I promise...this isn't a generic comment. lol I know it kinda sounds like it, but there's so much I could say but it would end up a blog post. lol.

  4. looks like you've been through SO MUCH (god, I've just made it sound so lame!). I kind of know how you feel. My father has always been just like your husband (my mother never left him, though. In late 80s and 90s in small towns in Poland divorce was still somewhat shameful for a woman. Plus there was always this "let's stay together for the kids" thing).

    But I think you're not entirely right about empathy. The part of its definition (AT LEAST HERE IN POLAND HAHA) is that you can understand and sort of feel other people's emotions WITHOUT having experienced the same exact thing firs-hand before. That's why not everyone is capable of real empathy, while everyone can be compassionate. Empathy is ability to feel into this other person's situation but not everyone has this ability, well, at least not in the same degree.

    Anyway, thank you for your comment, you know - the latest one :) It really means a lot.

  5. Wow! Lots to think about! You've been through a lot. I was just thinking about empathy the other day and value your definition.

    Happy Friendly Friday!

  6. When something falls into my empathy court (and your definition of empathy vs. compassion is identical to mine), I run with it. I figure I've lived a life -- an abusive Borderline sister, depressed mother, verbally abusive bipolar ex-husband, manipulative ex in-laws, son with bipolar, discarded by men who should have cherished me, some history with migraines, and a slew of other situations ya just can't make up -- not to hide and force a pretense of happiness, but rather to share my experiences and do what I can to help or spare others ....

  7. This is a really good post. I know it's not the one you did today, but I backtracked a little. I can relate a lot w/ your past marital issues. :)


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