A Lesson on Empathy by Eija Kent

What has been the biggest takeaway from my experience as an NHC member? EMPATHY! Throughout college I made a conscious effort to try to be more empathetic towards my friends. I have a tendency to be very honest, and sometimes that “honesty” verged on cruelty. So I learned to think before replying when a friend chose to share with me. As a result, my ability to empathize with my friends definitely improved, but my empathy towards strangers still waned at times.

During our pre-service orientation back in August of 2019, we watched a Brené Brown video about empathy. She describes empathy as “feeling WITH people” and creating connection, as opposed to sympathy which drives connection away. Sympathy often comes in the form of phrases that start with “At least…”. For example, someone says “My apartment has cockroaches” followed by the response “At least you have an apartment.” Brené Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better, is connection.” So rather than trying to improve someone’s mood, showing empathy is embracing their perspective and emotions. An empathetic response may sound as simple as “Thank you for sharing with me.”

That message stuck with me throughout my year of service and I have tried to provide empathetic responses whenever possible. I serve at Girard Medical Center which caters to a population very different from the one I grew up in. Many of our patients primarily speak Spanish, are immigrants, have unstable housing, and receive public benefits. I, on the other hand, speak English fluently, was born in the US, still return to my childhood home, and never received any public benefits until this year. I never expected to feel so connected to a community so different from what I had been accustomed to.

There is one interaction with a patient that exemplifies this lesson for me. He was living in a recovery house but his partner had recently given birth to their child, who had been admitted to the NICU. His recovery house only gave him two tokens to take public transit for the day. He would use one token to come to his doctor's appointment, and the other to return to the recovery house. This meant he could not get to the hospital to see his own child. At first I internally stumbled because I couldn’t think of any words of condolences, but then I recalled Brené Brown’s advice. He didn’t need me to make him feel better, he just needed to feel he was being heard. So I did all I could and helped connect him to some resources for new parents. In the end, he got to spend a couple nights at the hospital reunited with his family.

Empathy has power! I have seen it again and again. The aforementioned situation is just a snippet of its capabilities. I think that a lot of people would benefit from a little more empathy in their lives, be it at the grocery store, the doctors office, or the dining room table. Especially in a world where we cannot be physically together, empathy has the power to connect us. I hope that we can all recognize each other's perspectives and cultivate our capacities for empathy. We are connected by our nature as human beings. Honor that. Embrace that. And try not to say “At least…” anymore.