I love Irwin Yalom’s writing, his approach to therapy and his patients, and his insight. I was re-reading his book “The Gift of Therapy” for about the hundredth time, and came across this excerpt, which once again inspired me. I wanted to share it with you.
“Decades ago I saw a patient with breast cancer, who had, throughout adolescence, been locked in a long, bitter struggle with her naysaying father. yearning for some form of reconciliation, for a new, fresh beginning to their relationship, she looked forward to her father’s driving her to college– a time when she would be alone with him for several hours. But the long-anticipated trip proved a disaster: her father behaved true to form by grousing at length about the ugly, garbage-littered creek by the side of the road. She, on the other hand, saw no litter whatsoever in the beautiful, rustic, unspoiled stream. She could find no way to respond and eventually, lapsing into silence, they spent the remainder of the trip looking away from each other.
Later, she made the same trip alone and was astounded to note that there were two streams– one on each side of the road. “this time I was the driver,” she said sadly, “and the stream I saw through my window on the driver’s side was just as ugly and polluted as my father had described it.” But by the time she had learned to look out her father’s window, it was too late– her father was dead and buried.”
Empathy is learning to look out of the other person’s window, to see the world as they do, to be able to ask yourself, “what lies on their side of this journey?”
An important element of empathy is the present moment. We may acknowledge what has happened or what will occur in someone’s life, but the work of empathy abides with that person’s present experience.