If we go outside and watch the sunset, or listen to the birds, or smell the fragrance on the air, we will find the world is full of beauty, wonder, and inspiration.
The reality is, it’s neither one nor the other – it is both. But, I can choose my attitude towards the world, towards other people, and towards myself. I’m reminded of the story about two people walking down the road in the middle of a rainstorm. One of them is huddled over, a grimace on their face, mumbling and grumbling. The other is skipping along, smiling and occasionally whooping for joy. Each of them have made a choice. It doesn’t matter which of the choices are made – both of them get wet. Given that I’m going to get wet, I think I’d prefer to be the skipper.
So, here are the choices that I wish to make in my life.
Empathy stems from a Greek word – pathos, that can be translated as suffering, feeling, emotion or calamity. Literally, it means what befalls one. Empathy adds the prefix em meaning in. Empathy, then, is the ability to experience the suffering of others. Empathy allows us to understand what others are feeling either because we have experienced similar feelings or have the ability to step out of our own experience and discover the feeling that the other person or persons are undergoing. Our brains contain what are known as mirror neurons which effectively mirror what is happening emotionally for another person. Via this mechanism our brains react as if what we are seeing or hearing from another person is actually happening to ourselves, within our own bodies.
Fortunately, our mirror neurons don’t confine themselves just to feelings of suffering. When others are happy, joyful, or having fun, we can feel those emotions also via our mirror neurons.
It is possible to develop our empathy. Becoming more self-aware helps. Being in touch with our own feelings and emotions, being able to identify them and then able to express them increases our empathic response to others.
Many of us look for happiness in our lives. We try to find it by looking inside ourselves, or immersing ourselves in material possessions or experiences. The key to happiness, however, may actually lie in our interaction with others. The Dalai Lama has eloquently noted that,
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”The word itself gives us a clue that this is in fact so. Compassion is passion with the small prefix com attached. Com is Latin for with. So, very simply, compassion is passion with others.
When we are able to empathise and act with compassion then being able to forgive almost follows as naturally as day follows night. Many of us find it difficult to forgive because we mistakenly associate it with being a subversion of justice, forgetting, weakness, or some sort of quasi-religious righteousness. It is none of these. Indeed, forgiveness is often more something we do for ourselves than for the person we are forgiving. How many of us go through life with some grudge or animosity against another person? We are trapped. Trapped by our own lack of forgiveness. Yet, as soon as we forgive we find that we become free.
Love? What is it? Philosophers, playwrights, religious teachers, poets, musicians, psychologists, and all of us, have sought to understand this emotion over generations. So, I’m not going to try to define it here. All I know is that love is something that I choose to bring into my life: unconditional love, fully-embracing love, love for others, love for animals, love for nature, love for the earth. A love that flows through me and I through it. That’s all I can say.
Embracing a love that is all-encompassing means that I choose connection. I choose connection rather than disconnection, rather than separateness. Indeed, it could be that connection allows us to choose empathy, compassion, forgiveness and love. The sense of separateness is an illusion and by attempting to view ourselves as separate beings means that empathy, compassion, forgiveness and love are always going to be difficult to embrace.
Everything is connected, and the more we understand this the more we notice that everything is connected. Yes, I know that is almost a tautology, yet it is a self-confirming cycle that underpins the whole of life. Embrace it!
These are the attitudes that I choose for myself. None of this is suggesting that these are easy to keep in mind or continually act on. I do choose them though.
When I make these choices there is less room for fear, hatred, anger, and isolation. I still expect to get wet though.