Foundations of Deep Empathy

Submitted by Joe Schaeffer on August 18, 2015 - 12:00am
A sneak peek from "Living Community" by Joe Schaeffer

When I feel your empathy, something is released in me. 

You dignify me. You permit me to emerge.

Karl Eric Knutsson

When people live community, they recognize, acknowledge, and allow the full complexity and depth of human emotional experience. They do not feel embarrassed when someone has the courage to show an emotion. And they certainly do not pity or judge her.


Still, it is not always easy to keep the heart open and accepting and, at the same time, keep from getting hooked on the drama of someones story. But deep empathy is not sympathy or even compassion. And it is not Emotional Intelligence. An individual feels neither for nor with another. She strives for something deeper. She strives to become as the other in her very being.


It is as if we sit side by side with each other rather than face to face. We are present; we bear witness as someone tells her story, gets something off her chest, or, at times, heals herself of pain and suffering from the past.


I was sitting next to a teenage girl recently in a community circle. As I listened to her story of abuse at the hands of an older man, I became concerned. She was leaning forward, as if her body hurt, crying through the words she spoke. I broke my empathy and knelt in front of her.


"Are you OK? I asked.


 Im not finished yet, was her replyirritated.


 Later, I again became concerned and knelt in front of her a second time. Are you OK? I asked again.


 Im ready to come home, she said. A broad smile replaced her tears as she settled back in her chair. She knew who she was. She knew what she needed to do.


I could have trusted the power of deep empathy all along. I could have sat quietly beside her and allowed the unfolding of her experience while she healed herself.


Sometimes a persons experience is so intense and potentially self-destructive that she needs to find professional help in the form of therapy or medication. But when a person knows she can care for herself, when she needs a healing circle rather than a therapists couch, the simple empathic presence of others as witnesses can provide the safety and support she needs.


I wonder how many appointments with health-care professionals and how much the use of medications might be avoided if we could simply treat each other with genuine interest, acknowledgement, and deep empathy all the time.