The E-Word is Empathy

Category: Weekly Columns


For many of us, the holidays are a mixed bag. We want to be happy and get into the spirit, but there often is a lot of baggage we carry with us. It may be sad memories from childhood. It may be sad consequences of divorce. Or, it may be loneliness. For me, it’s been a sense of a longing for a bigger family, as for much of my life my family unit was small. Most of us have it good and that is why I want to focus on empathy as a great way to cope, understand, and feel good.

I often like to quote Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s mother who said, “The only happy people I know are people I don’t know very well.” Isn’t that the truth? Most people have problems but most people cover them up pretty well. Do you really know what is going on in the hearts and minds of those you perceive as being happy and/or doing well? Do your apparently rich neighbors, who get a new car every two years, actually carry extreme debt? Do you know what goes on in the bedrooms of those who seem so happy?

The answer is no, you don’t. With men, it can be even worse, since so many men bottle up their emotions or cope with their sorrows and frustrations with drink, abundant exercise, extra-marital flings, or the occasional toy that temporarily assuages that empty feeling. Women talk about their emotions and feeling, but are they telling their friends the whole story?

Growing up, I marveled at my mother’s ability to, within minutes of meeting a friend of mine, to find out something personal about him or her that I didn’t know. My mother had that ability to encourage people to open their hearts to her. It was because she cared, because she empathized. That ability eventually passed on to me and often people will declare something to the effect, “I can’t believe I just told you that!”

Caring about others is a gift. Caring about others allows you to reflect on your own blessings and, possibly, to offer a shoulder and/or a solution. Taking the time to really ask someone “How are you?” is beautiful. Asking a probing question of someone you know that might need to express something important is a way to show how much you care.

A great way to bring things up and out is to open up yourself with something personal about you. You don’t have to declare your family’s deep dark secrets, but maybe just a hint of something that troubles you about the economy, a child, retirement, whatever. It will humanize you and allow the other person to share something they may want or need to talk about.

One of the best things I’ve found about getting older is getting better at living life. I’ve found that I no longer live for what may be, but instead life for what is. That means I don’t think that I will be happier if such-and-such happens, which is something I was guilty of in my younger years. I now enjoy exactly what I have and if something better comes into my life that is just frosting on my cake of life.

How liberating to no longer care about acquiring more possessions. This past year, as it turned out, I got two really special presents from my wife. Neither was expected, asked for, or on any list in my mind. The first was a really beautiful wedding ring. We had taken the care and time to get my wife a gorgeous ring but I didn’t really care about one for myself and we originally chose one of the first ones we saw.

My wife never liked that ring and when we found a beautiful ring on a trip to Morocco, we came back inspired to get a similar one in a design that mirrored my wife’s exquisite ring. I now look at my own ring every day with such gratitude. It’s enhanced my life but I was perfectly fine with my old one.

While working with our jeweler on this new ring, we noticed a truly magnificent watch in the display. My wife got that watch for my birthday this year. Now, I wear the ring and watch on my left finger and right hand, respectively, with great pride. But, I look at them as lovely enhancements to my life and marriage, not as anything I needed to feel whole.

Things don’t make us happy. People do. Experiences do. Who can you touch? Who can you help this holiday season? Take one day from your holiday plans and volunteer at a senior care facility. Bring your children. Brighten the day of a lonely elderly man or woman. Imagine how they feel! Empathize with their plight, their losses, and their needs.

This is what makes the holiday season bright. Giving back to the world and caring for people.




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