By Wendy Choy-Chan
I still remember it was a great relief for me when I first read about empathy. I am not a person of many words, so I always felt inadequate when I couldn’t offer any brilliant solutions to the ones pouring out their problems and heartaches in front of me. Once I realized that what they really needed was someone to be present with them and to listen to them, I stopped trying to come up with clever words or ideas to solve their problems.
An added benefit to this discovery was that I understood why I got frustrated with my husband when he offered me solutions — because what I needed from him was just a listening ear and a hug. He is working hard to give empathy instead of giving solutions to me these days. But sometimes, I feel that while I am receiving his undivided attention and encouraging embrace, he seems to become agitated himself. Is it really that hard to reprogram a man’s wiring inside his brain? That was my assumption until I stepped into his shoes on one occasion.
My daughter was sharing with me something that she was distraught about. I knew that the situation was not that hopeless and she was just stuck in her perspective. As I listened more and more, I couldn’t hold it any longer; I had to show her how to climb out of the pit that she had put herself into. So much for learning how to give empathy! She was a good sport, listening to my “advice” without interrupting. And then, I realized that I wasn’t just trying to solve her problem, I was actually voicing out my own distress. It hurt me so much to see her in pain, and I was trying to address my own pain as I spoke my mind out to her. At the end, we embraced each other, I offering empathy to her, but also she offering empathy to me.
I came to understand more about myself and my husband. There are also times when the person we are to offer empathy to is so close to us that his/her pain causes pain to build up in us and we are in need of empathy ourselves.
In his daily devotion, Henri Nouwen related a quote by Pope John-Paul II: “Nobody is so poor that he/she has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich that he/she has nothing to receive.” When I share with my husband about my troubles, even though I am hoping to receive empathy from him, I am not so poor that I cannot give him empathy too. As I listen to his advice and solutions for me, I also hear his feeling of frustration and helplessness for not being able to rescue me. To receive empathy is a gift, and to offer empathy is a blessing, but sometimes, it is even more beautiful to give empathy to the same person from whom you are receiving empathy. A special space and moment is created, in which both persons are giving and receiving at the same time. As a result, a deeper understanding and closeness will bloom in this mutual exchange of empathy.
Wendy Choy-Chan came to North America from Hong Kong when she was 15. After graduating with a MScE, she worked as a telecommunications engineer for 5 years before becoming a full-time wife and mom. Wendy just earned her MA in Theology at Fuller Northwest and is now serving at Evangelical Chinese Church of Seattle as a minister-in-training. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Seattle, WA.