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How We Learn To Feel (and what we learn from feeling) May 27, 2020

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“But it seems reasonable to believe — and I do believe — that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”


– Rachel Carson accepting the John Burroughs Medal (April 1952) and printed in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson


“It had been Nashibitti who had taught Leaphorn the words and legends of the Blessing Way, taught him what the Holy People had told the Earth Surface People about how to live, taught him the lessons of the Changing Woman – that the only goal for man was beauty, and that beauty was found only in harmony, and that this harmony of nature was a matter of dazzling complexity.”


– from Dance Hall of the Dead (Navajo Mysteries #2) by Tony Hillerman

This week, as we step back and really take a look at “role models,” the roles of our ancestors and elders, and the lessons they’ve taught us about how to live and interact with ourselves and each other, I thought we might take a moment to consider how we’ve learned to live and interact with the planet we call home. Behavioral scientists, and people who are interested in the science of our behaviors, are quick to point to incidences of animal mutilation in childhood whenever someone perpetrates great violence against humanity. There were signs, you see. And, sometimes, we missed the signs or didn’t pay enough attention to the signs.

A recent incident in New York sheds an interesting light on this subject, especially when it is viewed through the lens of everything else that is happening around us. In a situation where one person is committing emotional violence against another person and physical violence against a pet, some people quickly turn their focus on the pet’s distress. Others condemn such a reaction. However, it’s a very real and honest reaction. Rather than condemning how someone else reacts to trauma, I suggest we go deeper.

“‘Don’t think a man don’t care about one goat because he’s got a thousand of ‘em,’ Hosteen Nakai would say. ‘He’s got a thousand because he cares more about goats than he cares about his relatives.’”


– from People of Darkness (Navajo Mysteries #4) by Tony Hillerman

People who react to the pet’s distress (what they can see as well as hear), as opposed to the other person’s distress (what they may not be able to hear or completely understand as they cannot see the person) are still expressing empathy. This is important, because when scientist, writers, and lay people talk about childhood instances of animal mutilation part of their focus is on a lack of empathy. So, first and foremost consider the importance of empathy. While empathy is a natural emotion , we learn lessons throughout our lives about whether or not to trust – let alone engage – emotions like empathy. If we don’t trust our own emotions and intuition, it’s harder – almost impossible – to trust the emotions of others.

EMPATHY [Greek > German] – The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objective and explicit manner.


SYMPATHY [Greek >> Latin] – Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.


COMPASSION [Latin>> Old French > Middle English] – To suffer with.

There is a difference between empathy, sympathy, and compassion – and the difference is critical. Compassion and sympathy are a much older words than empathy. Compassion refers to our ability to understand another’s pain and suffering, and to simultaneously have the desire that the other’s pain and suffering ends. Sympathy holds multiple meanings, including “having an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other” and “a feeling of loyalty; tendency to favor or support.” When we speak in terms of the emotional experience of sympathy, however, there is a layer of pity. That is to say, our feelings of sympathy are more often than not associated with the feeling that someone of something is beneath us: we feel sorry for them. Furthermore, while we may feel sorry for someone, we may not every feel or express the desire that their pain and suffering ends. We may not ever make the connection between what they feel and what we can feel.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the emotion that bridges the gap between what we are feeling and what another is feeling. Coined (from German) by English psychologist  Edward Bradford Titchener, the word “empathy” was used in the early 1900’s to describe the process of projecting one’s own emotions (and thoughts) onto another person or object. This emotional projection was considered a kind of animation or emotional play that allowed one to feel kinship (or sympathy) with another. Over time (and thanks in part to the work of experimental psychologist and sleep expert Rosalind Dymond Cartwright, in collaboration with her mentor, sociologist Leonard Cottrell), the word “empathy” became associated with the final experience: feeling the same as another, without experiencing what the other experiences.

“‘I didn’t want to believe it. Too many old friends are dying. I didn’t really think I could learn anything about that diamond out here. I just wanted to see if I could bring back some old memories…. Maybe it would help me get into harmony with living with so many of my friends gone.’”


– from Skeleton Man (Navajo Mysteries #17) by Tony Hillerman

Some of Dr. Cartwright’s research focused on how empathy related to a patient’s “need to change” and ability to progress in therapy. So, there is the even deeper side to the conversation on empathy. The role empathy plays in allowing us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes may also be the role it plays in our ability to change.

As you consider that, also consider the last time you paused and really considered why you react to what you can see more than what you feel?

Writers and other artists are in the business of creating work that cultivates empathy. It’s why most of us can say, would say, we have never been a dog – but on a certain level we can imagine a dog’s life (as there are plenty of books and movies that have encouraged that viewpoint). Rachel Carson (born today in 1907) started Silent Spring with a parable, in part to elicit empathy for Nature before she started getting into the science. Tony Hillerman (born today in 1925) was a veteran and a journalist who wrote 18 novels about Navajo police officers and their role in protecting the people, the heritage, and the landscape within their keeping. If you miss the fact that Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are environmental and cultural gatekeepers, you missed part of what made Hillerman’s work so emotionally compelling.

“‘Everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.’”


– from The Ghostway (Navajo Mysteries #6) by Tony Hillerman


“In these troubled times it is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. There is modern truth to the ancient wisdom of the psalmist: `I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.’”


– from Rachel Carson’s original submission to “Words to Live By” for This Week Magazine (1951)


The question now becomes, when was the last time you put yourself in the shoes of someone you perceive to be different from you? When was the last time you imagined the life of someone whose life experience and life lessons are very different – or may seem very different – from yours? When was the last time you empathized without sympathizing (or pitying) another?

These are tricky questions that lead to a tricky conversation. And, while I say “conversation,” understand that the conversation is mostly an internal dialogue. Discernment, recognizing the movements of one’s own heart, is an internal process. Sure, we can have conversation with one another, but that requires gut-wrenching honesty. In order to have that gut-wrenching honesty with another person, we must first have it with ourselves. And that’s the tricky part: gut-wrenching honesty is gut-wrenching for a reason; it’s painful and pain is one of those things we want to avoid at all costs. So, rather than truly feel another’s pain – rather than truly feel our own pain – we “pity the fool” and go on about our day.

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”


– from Silent Spring by Rachel Carson


“It was not a Navajo concept, this idea of adjusting nature to human needs. The Navajo adjusted himself to remain in harmony with the universe. When nature withheld the rain, the Navajo sought the pattern of this phenomenon – as he sought the pattern of all things – to find its beauty and live in harmony with it. Now Leaphorn sought the pattern in the conduct of a man who had tried to kill a policemen rather than accepting a speeding ticket.”


– from Listening Woman (Navajo Mysteries #3) by Tony Hillerman


In Coyote Waits (one of my favorite Leaphorn and Chee mysteries), Hillerman wrote, “‘I think from where we stand the rain seems random. If we stand somewhere else, we see the order in it.” The Sanskrit word vinyasa means “to place in a special way” and shares a root with vipassana, which means “to see in a special way.” The practice is all about order, and also about what we think (and see) because of where we stand. It also, gives us an opportunity to stand (and see) in another place/way and to find harmony. Remember, we cannot understand what our minds have not shown us.

Please join me today (Wednesday, May 27th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a practice and reflection on what we’ve learned about interacting with harmony and beauty. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

Don’t forget that you can request an audio recording of any class via a comment below. If you have been thinking about joining us, but haven’t been able to work it out, this is the week to request a class recording. If one of the themes from this week doesn’t immediately resonate, I am happy to offer a suggestion.

“‘Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried up. No water. The Hopi, and the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought. You see what I mean. The system is designed to recognize what’s beyond human power to change, and then to change the human’s attitude to be content with the inevitable. ’”


– from Sacred Clowns (Navajo Mysteries #11) by Tony Hillerman


“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”


– from Silent Spring by Rachel Carson


If you are thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call the TALK line if you are struggling with addiction or involved in an abusive relationship. The Lifeline network is free, confidential, and available to all 24/7. YOU CAN TALK ABOUT ANYTHING.