This is a Middle Eastern story.
Down the street and around seven corners, a man and woman were married.
They loved one another. But very soon after the marriage, the woman was sorry to discover that her husband often came home in a foul mood. One thing or another happened during the day that made him grumpy or angry. He carried this burden home with him and was not at all shy about sharing it with her.
"This cannot go on," thought the woman. She contemplated what to do until finally one day she said, "Husband of mine, I know that your work is difficult and causes you grief some days. And I've noticed that on those days you come home angry."
Here husband nodded, and she continued, "Husband, I think things will go better if you could warn me before you get home on the days when you are angry. Then I can take your bad humor into consideration and treat you carefully."
He liked the idea, thought for a moment, and then said, "I wear a red fez every day."
Who wouldn't, it was very elegant!
"I could flip the long tassel that hangs to the side over to the front of my fez. Then you'd know and could take my bad humor into account."
"Yes, why not?" said the wife with enthusiasm and added, with a little hesitation, "the only thing is that I am sometimes angry, too."
He nodded as she continued, "So I think it would only be fair to you if I also warned you with a sign when I am angry. I have a lovely white apron that I rarely use. Perhaps I should wear it on the days when I am in a foul humor."
"Why not?" said the husband, "then I can take you anger into consideration too."
As so they adopted the plan.
The very next day, everything seemed to go wrong for the husband and, as he walked home, his anger grew with each step. By the time he rounded the corner on the their street, he was furious. But when he reached their house, he remembered the plan and what did he do? … He flipped the tassel to the front side of his elegant red fez.
The woman had been anticipating her husband's arrival and was looking out the window. When she saw the tassel, what did she do? She quickly ran to put her apron on!
The husband opened the door, and when he saw the white apron, he thought, "Oh dear, it will never do for us both to be angry. We might hurt one another." And so he quickly flipped the tassel back around to the side of his elegant red fez. He did his very best to be pleasant and to treat her with kindness and compassion. She also managed to be kind.
They had a lovely evening.
A few days later, the same thing happened. He was angry, but caught himself in time before he got home and what did he do? Of course, he flipped the tassel around. And the woman? As soon as she saw his fez, she put on her apron. When he saw her apron, he rearranged his tassel and they managed to be perfectly pleasant to one another.
The same scenario, with tassel and then the apron and then the tassel, happened over and over again, several more times.
Finally, the husband said, "It is very strange. Every time I come home angry, you are angry, too."
"It is strange indeed," replied his wife, "But it is good that we are able to put our anger aside." And then she added, "We human beings have been cursed with tempers, but we are also blessed with wisdom. Perhaps we could both agree to end our bad habit of being angry, and decide instead to always be kind and compassionate with one another."
"That would be wise," said the husband.
And that is what they did.
As you listened to the story of the husband and wife, what did you think of the way the wife managed her husband's anger? Have you ever managed a potential conflict using a similar tactic? While the ending of the story seemed to work out for the couple, the process that the wife used seemed a little manipulative—perhaps it was self-protective--sneaking her husband into empathy and self-reflection by putting on an apron even when she wasn't angry or upset, rather than accepting the fez/apron agreement as an authentic process that might have led to more connection, understanding, and compassion.
As I read the story over a few more times, I began reflecting on two of our Unitarian Universalist Principles: 2nd--Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations and 3rd--Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Acceptance and compassion, when I have truly engaged with them, have resulted in my spiritual growth. For instance, when Martha and I were raising our two sons, particularly after Martha returned to work when our youngest started Kindergarten and when I entered seminary while keeping my full-time job and a ministerial internship, hours away from home, we experienced a lot of stresses in the marital system. Martha and I have said from time to time, that though we have been together for 45 years (dating and living "in sin" for the first 3 and a half years), we have had a happy and loving relationship for all but 2 and a half years. For much of the first years, we were carefree, doing what we wanted together. It was during a few years when our kids were in early elementary school and I was in seminary, when we had not time for each other, at least no time to really talk about what was on our hearts with each other, that acceptance, empathy, connection, and compassion seemed hard to come by. The distance, anger, hurt and pain had reached a point when both of us were considering divorce, despite having been together at that point for 15 years. I believe it was on one night when we went out to dinner, and we both voiced our distress and our thoughts about leaving the marriage that we began to feel empathy once again, and not just empathy, but compassion for one another, which led to a reconnection that has kept us together from that point on. Did we have to reach that almost terminal point in our relationship for empathy, compassion, and connection to resurface? I don't really know. But I do believe that it was opening our hearts to empathy that started us on the road back to one another.
Notice I used the word empathy, not sympathy. It is because these two are very different experiences/responses. Before I go into their definitions, I think it is important to say that different people define these terms in different ways. For some sympathy is about feeling sad for another in distress. But I have come to see sympathy as more self-oriented, noting another person's distress from my own perspective, from only what I am feeling and thinking about the situation. Empathy involves putting myself in the other person's shoes, feeling what they feel, and trying to understand why they may have these particular feelings. Empathy is something that most of us have the capacity for. It is a sense that we can share and maybe understand the feelings of another person. At least for me, sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune. Have you heard someone say, or "Poor thing" or "I know how you feel because…" or "Here is what I would do…" These are expressions of sympathy and generally do not result in healing or connection.
Empathy is a one-on-one connection that comes from sharing an emotional experience. The challenge of empathy is that it involves opening up to feeling the pain and suffering of another person, which only happens when you allow yourself to be vulnerable. We human beings prefer to avoid pain and suffering. And if pain becomes too much we tend to run away, fight, or freeze to cope.
"[October 2010] in Atlanta, Buddhist scholars and researchers in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience congregated alongside His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Emory University’s Conference on Compassion Meditation (Empathy or Compassion? Reflections on the Compassion Meditation Conference By Tricycle Oct 26, 2010). The conference explored several of the many methods for constructively dealing with destructive emotions that Buddhism offers… Particularly interesting in the conversations were the recurrent attempts to articulate the distinction between empathy and compassion… Psychologist and primate researcher Frans B.M. de Waal began this conversation by identifying empathy as an automated, involuntary, biologically-inbuilt reaction… Matthieu Ricard, western monk, scientist, and author, continued the conversation, considering how the experience of empathy without compassion would induce incredibly unpleasant, even crippling, states…Matthieu explained the testing of this hypothesis in the lab, where seasoned meditators were instructed to resonate with others’ suffering without generating compassion…until the practice became utterly unbearable—and it did. When the meditators in the lab then generated compassion, their experience transformed completely."
Empathy by itself does not always lead to compassion-- that is, the desire to alleviate the suffering of others. In order to better cultivate greater compassion, it helps to define that word more precisely as a caring response to distress or suffering. "This can take two forms:
1. Being willing “to suffer with” another; to bear witness and not turn away in the face of their distress; to accompany and provide solace to them through one’s caring presence.
2. Acting to alleviate or mitigate another person’s distress or suffering." (from Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Fearlessly Live Your Highest Purpose, and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good, by Fleet Maull, PhD. Sounds True, May 2019).
The second form, trying to fix or alleviate another’s suffering—unless it is something as simple as lending a hand to someone who has fallen or calling for help in a medical emergency—may, in fact, be more about alleviating our own empathic distress. However, the willingness to patiently accompany another in their time of suffering with care and awareness, "to suffer with"—while realizing the pain is not one’s own, despite feeling empathic distress—may provide the connection necessary to really be of help to another person. Fleet Maull, PhD says, " Living bravely with empathic awareness, when I encounter someone’s sadness, it touches me—I care and resonate with their feelings. It’s more than a disinterested observation of what another person is experiencing: it actually opens my heart." Compassion is holding lovingkindness for yourself and for another without expectation, as you witness another's pain and suffering. And, this is very important, to willingly hold compassion with suffering—yours and that of others—without resentment, blame, or other fear-based, reactive-survival mode behaviors that will just make the situation worse.
What all this boils down to for me is that being in relationship with another person offers us the opportunity for empathy. And empathy offers us the opportunity to be compassionate, to witness in the spirit of lovingkindness another's suffering and pain. I believe that for any relationship to last empathy, understanding, and compassion are key. And I know that the best thing we can do for another who is in pain or suffering is feel with them, be with them, and love them. Nothing more.
I asked you earlier "Can we imagine empathy as an aesthetic practice of Widening the Circle?" I think now that this is the wrong question. Instead, I want to ask you "Can you imagine compassion as an aesthetic practice of Widening the Circle?" What would that look like? Do you remember a time when someone offered you compassion, not sympathy, but compassion? How did that feel? Keep those times in mind—how you have practiced compassion and how you have felt when you were offered compassion. Remember them, and bring these skills into all of your relationships, that is the aesthetic practice of compassion.
The wife said, "We human beings have been cursed with tempers, but we are also blessed with wisdom. Perhaps we could both agree to end our bad habit of being angry, and decide instead to always be kind and compassionate with one another."
"That would be wise," said the husband.
And that is what they did.