By Nina Odele

I recently inherited a Merriam Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary published in 1959, when I was two years old. This dictionary is very beautiful, leather-bound, and still in great condition.  It was my Mother’s.

We writers are an odd bunch.  Sometimes a word just sticks in our heads and the only way to stop the madness is to write about it.  Today, for me, that word is “empathy.”  I quite literally woke up this morning with that word screaming in my brain!  When I was about twelve years old, Mother and I had one of our serious talks.  I sat down in her library, my palms sweaty, wondering what I was in trouble for this time!  As it turned out, Mother actually wanted to praise me for something. She also wanted to warn me about something as well.

Getting right to the point, Mother said there are two types of people in this world — those with empathy and those without. Then she asked me if I knew what empathy meant.  I said, “No, I did not.”  She said empathy is having the God-given knack to put your self into someone else’s shoes, and therefore, gaining a caring understanding of their various predicaments.  She told me I had empathy for others, whereas she did not.  I was confused.  Was empathy a bad thing?  Mother said, “No, it’s a very good thing unless you let it take you too far.”  She went on to explain that some people will try to play the “empathy card” in order to change empathy into sympathy.  Mother then asked me if I understood what she was trying to tell me.  I nodded yes, but I was still a bit confused.  As with most things in life, this was one of those things we must experience first hand in order to fully grasp the meaning of it.

That little conversation always stuck with me, and much later on, I learned the difference between empathy and sympathy — by trial and error, mostly by error in the beginning.   I’ve unwillingly been drawn into several people’s problematic lives over the years.  Although the scary thing is when other people’s problems take precedence over your own.  It’s a vortex that is seemingly impossible to escape, sort of like trying to run away from the boogie man in a nightmare.  Your feet want to move but somehow they stay firmly planted in place.  I inadvertently sympathized when I should have empathized.

As a result, here is what I have learned: Be there for others, but don’t do their work FOR them.  This may establish a pattern of dependence that can drag on indefinitely.  Be caring, yet firm.  Let people know that they must help themselves in order to grow mentally, emotionally, and financially.  Remind people that no matter how bad things may seem, there are always others who have it much worse than they do.  Be a good friend, a shoulder to cry on, et cetera.  But don’t be a fly in the web that is someone else’s dysfunction.  It will drain your soul — guaranteed.

Now, back to Merriam Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary:  This morning, when I went to look up empathy, a tiny gift card dropped out of that exact page! On the front was a silly little Christmas elf.  It said “I’m Not Santa, But…”  Then the inside said “Merry Christmas Anyway!”  No signature.  I chuckled to myself that the dictionary was pre-book marked to the precise page I wanted. Thanks Mother!

Empathy — “Imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another being.”

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