Empahty is minutia.
Sometimes having empathy sounds impossible. The quest scares some people off. It seems so hard, especially these days where it seems like you can't go a day without scrolling past an article that says "10 things to never say to someone with 'x'." I don't know about you, but those articles leave me wondering, what can I say? How will anyone ever know I care if I don't ask? How can I ever be sure I don't say the wrong thing without simply saying nothing?
Empathy is not saying nothing. Empathy sounds hard when you're trying to be empathic. When you don't know what to do or what to say, when you don't know how to support someone you care about, what do you do!?
A simple lesson I learned recently is that empathy is in the small things. Gestures don't have to be grand and statements don't have to be lavish. You don't have to know exactly what someone is going through. You don't have to quote the bible.
The best experience of empathy I've had recently was from my OB.
I wrote to him through a secure messaging system that my health care providers subscribe to. I wrote telling him of the pregnancy and notifying him that I'd be setting up my appointments through his office.
He responded, no more than one hour later, with a brief message that gave a date when he could probably see me and he suggested, "if you would prefer to bypass the nurse appointment until you are a bit further along then, given your history, that would be fine."
Sounds pretty simple right? Well, let me tell you a little back story:
Sometime between my second and fifth miscarriage, I was at my OB's office. Their practice, like many, asks for the pregnant patient to see the Nurse first, about 1 week before seeing the doctor for the initial new pregnancy OB visit. The Nurse reviews your family history to determine if any genetic testing is needed (like for sickle cell disease in families who carry the trait, for example) and to remind the new mother of the recommendations in pregnancy (like not eating too much tuna or drinking any alcohol). They're useful visits, especially when you're pregnant for the first time. A new mother can really learn a lot from the Nurse visit, plus my doctor's office gives us a free book and some other stuff.
But for me, this wasn't my first time in the nurses chair. She was asking questions I'd been asked a few times before, not really all that long ago. She asked what pregnancy this was - I think it was my fourth. But then I had to explain that I only had one child and she fumbled with that very awkwardly -- I'll spare you the details, but let's just say that she tried, unsuccessfully, to recover from putting her foot in her mouth. Little did I know that this would happen repeatedly in various future social situations, I was left trying to make her feel better about the situation, feeling guilty and apologetic that my misfortune had made her uncomfortable. I hated every second of the remainder of our visit and I think that was my first experience with a mild form of a panic attack. I just could not wait to get out of there.
The next time I saw my OB, I asked him to never make me have to go through that again and he agreed. That was more than two years ago.
And he remembered.
A tiny story. Insignificant to him, I'd imagine, but huge to me. And he remembered.
What a great expression of empathy. A tiny gesture really - giving me permission to delay something that might be uncomfortable for me. I was relieved. I appreciate this act of kindness so much.
Empathy is minutia.