bonar crump

bonar crump
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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Empathy and Anxiety

My anxiety levels are through the roof. I’m experiencing empathy overload. Life isn’t always as straight-forward as we’d like it to be for those of us carrying heavy burdens for people dealing with adversity, hardship, or injustice. Empathic tolerance is a thing. It’s a thing that allows open-hearted folks to endure the chaos they rub up against. Empathic tolerance requires healthy levels of empathic resistance in order to avoid overload and subsequent empathic collapse.

Tears help. There’s something about tears that are restorative. Crying is a “giving over” to the overload and allowing excess hurt, anger, grief, and despair to spill out.

I was recently interviewed about discipleship relevant to membership in a Motorcycle Club community. I told a story about a guy falling in a hole. The guy falls into a deep hole and can’t climb out. A doctor comes by and our guy asks for help. The doctor writes a prescription on a piece of paper and throws it into the hole as he moves on. A priest comes by later and writes a prayer on a piece of paper which he throws down into the hole and moves on. Still later, a friend wanders by. Our guy hollers up to him. “Joe, I’m down in this hole. Can you get me out?” Joe jumps down into the hole with him. Our guy states with amazement, “are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” Joe confidently answers, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” As soon as I uttered these last words, I developed a knot in my throat the size of a bowling ball, dropped my eyes to my boots, and began to fight back tears.

I wasn’t embarrassed by this show of emotion. As a matter of fact, I was a little disappointed that the editors of the interview cut it out. Although, I fully understand why they did.

Getting choked up wasn’t all about sorrow. Some of it was about gratefulness. Some of it was about feeling helpless. Some of it was about sensing my own undeservingness. Much of it was about my lack of empathetic resistance.

Every time I engage another charitable effort I’m exposed to new levels of need. At what point does one succumb to the urge to “Van Gogh” by chopping off one’s own ear? If not the ear, then what? Maybe abusing alcohol is the severed ear. Maybe it’s marital strife. What if the ear loss manifests itself as combative behavior to those who dismiss our empathic priorities. I’m sure that we all “Van Gogh” to the beat of a million different drummers.

I have the sense that unchecked levels of empathic overload resulting in a backup of emotional stress often trigger the pressure release valves of destructive behavior. Most of us will seek emotional, physical, or intellectual sedation rather than engage an excessive emotional buildup of stress. We’ll do anything within our power to hold off the full experience of an undesirable emotional event.

I believe that the vast majority of “bad people” are those caught up in cycles of life resembling a deep hole with steep walls. They are deep in the hole and may have stopped asking folks up top for help. They’ve been in the hole so long that they’re either unaware of anything other than the hole or they’ve lost hope in every getting out.

We have to jump down into the hole. Oftentimes, we have to put ourselves in jeopardy in order to be benefactors. Our empathy should compel us to engage, embrace, and partner with folks living down deep. Compassion is our voice of empathy declaring that “bad” people are mostly misunderstood. The disadvantaged aren’t “bad.” The unhealthy aren’t “bad.” The misguided aren’t “bad.” The uneducated aren’t “bad.” There is no THEM. There is only US.

There is US in the hole. There is US not in the hole. That’s it.

My spontaneous loss of emotional control during the interview was both a remembrance and a foreshadowing. I was remembering all those that have jumped in the hole and led me out. I was thinking about all of those that I needed to help out of their holes. I was experiencing an overwhelming sense of humility. And within that same nanosecond, I recognized the faces of loved ones that I could only offer notes of encouragement thrown down into their hole.

And then it was gone. The moment that forced me to stare straight down lifted. It was like it had a four breath max and then passed through me. I looked up to see the cameraman fighting back tears. Likewise, the interviewer was struggling to maintain composure. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t even about me or my empathy overload. Something had released in all of us.

After unhooking my mic and taking down the tripod, we all awkwardly laughed and shook it off. I didn’t know what holes they were dealing with. They didn’t know the depth of my past or present holes. What we knew collectively was that honest vulnerability (whether intentional or spontaneous) triggers something undeniably transformative.

I recognize that creating connections safe enough to share vulnerability gets us part of the way out of our holes. I’m thinking that there’s hope in the safety followed by a trust in the vulnerability which set the stage for transformative moments. This has to be the way out. This has to be how we cry out to someone up top for help.

OR—we can barricade ourselves behind a wall of indifference. We can convince ourselves that isolation and aversion will keep us safe. We can think of vulnerability as weakness and empathy as subjugation. We can drive a flag deep into the soil and claim whatever hole we’re in as sovereign domain. The problem with this approach is that it’s not transformative. It offers no movement past or through the struggles we experience.

If I declare my location as fixed then it’s imperative that I’m RIGHT. And if I’m RIGHT then alternative locations are WRONG. Now I’ve got an US, a THEM, an immutable creed, and I no longer have to wrestle with challenges to my beliefs. A fixed position requires defense. Defense begs for walls. Walls prevent access. Walls provide a false sense of security. Walls abhor cooperation.

No. I will endure the insufferable anxiety and discomfort of empathy. I’ll embrace the uncertainty of emotional movement and transformation. I’ll embrace motion and discussion and compassion and cooperation. For the sake of nothing more than understanding, I’ll risk being wrong more than I’ll strive to be right. Enlightenment demands a posture of acceptance instead of resistance.

My anxiety levels are through the roof. But this, too, shall pass. On the other side is learning, understanding, and a grateful path of escape for us all. Because whatever we Iearn during this season we’ll pass on to others we come across. As best as we’re able, we’ll help. We’ll offer to partner and grasp at transformative life void of walls or defensive postures. If it takes some tears, so be it. It will certainly involve struggle and breathing through the moments that overwhelm.

AND—it’ll be far better than the alternative.

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