The Empathy of Age


I am intrigued by the concept of empathy. Variously defined as caring, psychological identification, or even sharing another person’s feelings, it is nevertheless a quality incumbent upon those of us in the health profession in whatever capacity.

Empathy is a word that has, in some minds, become synonymous with other altruistic traits such as sympathy, compassion, or even pity, but it is broader than those -and perhaps that is what makes it so valuable -so unique as a descriptor. Sympathy, for example, is more restricted in emphasis: more of a feeling of concern for another who is in need; compassion, on the other hand is what we may feel when another requires our help –a motivator.

Empathy encompasses these, and more. I like the definition in Wikipedia: Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference.

But is empathy something like a genetic gift? Something that pushes those who possess it to self-select into the helping professions? Or is it more like courage: you don’t know if you have it until it becomes necessary?

No, apparently it can be taught –although I must say I must have missed that lecture in medical school because, along with things like ethics and cultural safety, it was an assumed quantity. If you were going to be a doctor, that meant you had it… But, like St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of Time, it was an entity that was only definable when you didn’t try -or the philosopher Krishnamurti’s objection to naming God, because it confined the concept…

Over the years, though, I have tried to confine it –or at least experience its various manifestations. And although these are no doubt legion, I am still thirsty. Readers of these essays have perhaps already had their fill of my insatiable insistence on the art of listening before speaking (For example: https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/when-silence-is-golden/ ) But I’m afraid there was yet another news article that caught my eye: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33287727  and I thought I’d try it out at the first opportunity. I’m always looking for new tricks.

Radical listening –that sounded easy. And familiar: “…be present to what’s really going on within – to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing at that very moment” and, in practice, “Let people have their say, hold back from interrupting and even reflect back what they’ve told you so they knew you were really listening.” Perhaps that’s what I have been doing all along, but not consciously aware of it, though. Or maybe not –maybe all doctors think they listen, but possibly what we are actually listening to is ourselves –our prepared judgements, our sure and certain feeling that we have the answers. Or, at least an answer… Science uses inductive methods: start with the data and then establish a theory that seems to fit. But maybe, despite our protestations to the contrary, we sometimes resort to a type of deductive reasoning: start with a theory and then make the data fit -or at least search around until we find some that do. Because if we don’t have an answer… what good are we?

Time for awareness. I thought I’d start with someone with a relatively common problem –a non-gendered one so I could more easily slip into their shoes, as it were. I scanned my list of patients for the day but none seemed suitable. I simply could not easily cohabit a mind filled with fibroids or endometriosis.

Loren was different. A woman with persisting hot flushes seemed initially excludable from my naïvely chosen criteria, and yet it soon became apparent that the hot flushes were a sort of proxy. She was a young looking 62 with barely a wrinkle on her face. Fashionably thin and elegantly dressed, she seemed to have ignored the years that have exiled so many others -stranded them, as it were, on a foreign, uninviting coast. No, Loren was a professor at one of the universities here in the city, and much in demand both for her human rights advocacy and her several books on the subject that seemed to be quoted whenever federal immigration policies were in the news.

“I get these hot feelings in the most unfortunate circumstances, doctor. They usually occur when I’m in a social situation where my reaction to them would be noticeable –giving a lecture, for example. Or an interview. I’ve never embarrassed easily, but if some commentator manages it, I find myself almost overwhelmed by a need to wipe my forhead –not a sign of strength.”

She paused, no doubt waiting to judge my reaction as to whether that was a common feature. Mentally rubbing my hands and determined to try my new tricks, I smiled reassuringly. “So these hot flushes occur in social situations where to acknowledge them would be awkward..?”

She nodded, and then as if she’d been given permission to speak again: “I’m worried, frankly. I never used to be like this.” She considered it briefly, and her eyes turned inward for a moment. “I’m beginning to see it as a type of physiological dementia –a sort of bodily facsimile… an early protoype of things to come…”

The thought seemed to bother her and she studied my face for a refutation. “I can see you’re worried, Loren,” I replied slowly. “I’ve never heard hot flushes described as a type of nascent dementia, though.” Good; I was proud of that succinct encapsulation of her thoughts and looked at her contentedly. This wasn’t so hard.

She sighed, but I wasn’t sure whether it was out of satisfaction at finally being heard, or frustration. “And words don’t come as easily as they used to any more. I’ve been blaming it on the hot flushes because the two seem… coeval.” She glanced at me, her eyes frightened birds huddling in their cages. “Like just now –I couldn’t think of another word that meant ‘at the same time’ quickly enough, so I substituted ‘coeval’…”

Another long pause; I wondered whether this was the time to reiterate –the word ‘regurgitate’ entered my head and I almost smiled, but her face looked so anguished I decided to go for it. “Words don’t come easily anymore –and you blame it on your hot flushes… I like the word ‘coeval’ I have to say.” I blushed at my amateurish attempt at precis this time…

She didn’t sigh this time, but I could tell her eyes were about to leave their nest. “I suppose all of us experience this after a certain age…” She diverted her attention to the picture of a peasant woman leading a horse that hung on the opposite wall. “But words have been my world, and their loss –or at least their current drying up to a trickle- terrifies me.” She continued to stare at the picture, as if the answer lay in the coloured sketch, its almost random lines a reminder of her words. Suddenly she turned to stare at me. No, to study my reaction. I could sense her dividing me into grids, mathematically precise areas for analysis. “Hormones didn’t help before… Do you think it would help to go back on them?”

It was a plea, begging for an answer. A solution. Anything to give her hope. It was going to be hard to stick with my radical listening approach… Or had I already done it? I tried to smile intelligently at her, tried to find some words to help, but like her, I was struggling. “Words…” I started hesitantly, aware that I was blushing at my sudden blank. It was like my head was an empty screen. “…don’t come easily to you anymore…” The look of frustration at my repeated attempts to incorporate her own words into my response was becoming glaringly obvious, and I could almost feel her anger. I sighed and abandoned my tactics. “Words don’t come easily to any of us after a certain age, and its not only embarrassing, it’s frightening. They are my world as well –they’ve been what have defined me not only as an explicator of the arcane, but also as a person. Words are friends I’ve called on whenever the need arose. They’re still there, but as with you, the words that arrive in response are often friends of friends. Acquaintances from books I’ve read and long since forgotten. Clumsy words. Opaque words with only approximate relevance that people merely skip over when they hear them, thinking I’m just being clever. Metaphorical.

“And then the words, like branches floating past in a slowly moving river, make way for others –more familiar, perhaps, but moving all the same. And the conversation continues with probably only me who noticed all the substitutions…”

Loren sat back in her chair with a look of satisfaction on her face. Her eyes, caged once again, sat twinkling at me from their lairs. “You know,” she said, apparently finding her words with ease, “I should go to doctors more frequently.” And with that, she reached across the desk and squeezed my hand. “That’s all I needed to…” -a slight pause, almost unnoticeable- “assimilate…”

We looked at each other and smiled. We were of an age.

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