by Sonia Neale
Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what it is like to get inside someone else’s skin and feel what they are feeling. Most people have empathy, but there is a small percentage who wear their empathy on their sleeve. These are called Empaths, people who not just display empathy, but who literally take on another persons emotional pain so that person can be relieved of what they are feeling.
A couple of years ago, my Dad, my son Chris, aged thirteen and I went to the zoo. We walked around and admired the animals. When I was a child I loved the zoo, but this time all I could feel was the collective encompassing misery of hundreds of sentient beings locked up in small, dark, dank enclosures. It made me very sad and internally I had a fierce debate over the pros and cons of animal conservation versus animal extinction. Eventually we bought lunch and sat on a platform overlooking the elephant enclosure, which, from the point of view of the zoo, is a magnificent structure. From the point of view of an elephant, it’s a miserable hell-hole.
Chris, Dad and I watched an elephant sway backwards and forwards in a rhythmic motion unable to break out of its pattern. It reminded me of the way a mentally ill patient deals with quelling the crashing anxiety and fear they feel at being a captive to an insidious, ongoing, ever present and uncontrollable condition. I felt myself stirred up considerably by this beautiful, magnificent creature’s pain and distress and one look at Chris told me he felt the same way. Even though an elephant has a thick hide, Chris and I managed to get underneath its tough skin with much ease. My father on the other hand, who is generally a sensitive and empathic person, could not feel or even see what we felt and saw and told us that he didn’t have a clue what we were going on about. The animal looked fine to him.
The elephant was sending us distress signals in a language we could only feel with our hearts and our body. Although it was making no noise, our senses were overwhelmed and it felt like a roaring in our ears and a thunder in our hearts. We had to move on. For an Empath, out of sight is not out of mind and the elephant’s anguish and torment stayed with us for a very long time. It made us look inside ourselves and wonder what we could do for the earth and the environment and its inhabitants. It challenged us to think deeper about how we could make changes in our own lives. Chris, already a vegetarian, went on to volunteer for Riding for the Disabled and spends most of his free time working with horses. I went on to study psychology and help out with overseas charities.
Sometimes, I have to put aside all the pain and suffering in the world in order to cope with living my own life. This is not easy. I have to metaphorically pick up my empathy and place it inside a box and get on with my day. But I always revisit the box at night and in times of solitude and reflection.
Like an elephant, I too, can never forget.
Sonia Neale started therapy writing for post-natal-depression and anxiety. Thirteen years later she is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three teenagers, two cats and a dog and is studying for a psychology and counselling degree. Her website address is http://www.sonianeale.com.
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