First, let’s define empathy on a basic level. According to Wikipedia:
“Empathy is an ability with many different definitions . . . ranging from caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other.”
In short: Empathy is the ability to understand other people, recognize their pain and have an instinctual desire to help them.
An Example of Empathy
When I think of empathy one situation comes to mind: I was nineteen years old and sitting on the bus that took me to college five days a week. I had memorized every single tree and the details of the houses the bus passed.
There was never anything unusual about that bus ride. Of course, a community bus has loads of different people, all types, going to different places with different lives and ambitions. It was never strange to see a person who needed assistance: a man or woman, for example, in a wheelchair. The driver always helped them on the bus and helped them off. Smiles were exchanged. Life moved on.
I caught a different bus one day, a longer route, with new things to look at but nothing was really different. I was still going to the same place surrounded by unique people.
The bus slowed to a halt and a man in a wheelchair slowly came down the aisle. I waited for the driver to attach the seat belt, as they always do, as they have been trained to do. But he just kept driving and this man was without a belt. I thought to myself: “I should get up and attach the belt…but would he be offended?” I am certain others felt the same. I looked back out the window. It was fall, amber leaves graced the ground.
The man pulled the string that told the driver to stop. The bus slowly came to a halt and I waited for the driver to help the man off. He did not. I watched his eyes look back, bored, waiting to move on. And the man? Well he tried and tried to get off, his chair backing into other seats. He never asked for help and nobody offered.
I watched with the rest of them until fury took over my mind and I stood up. I grabbed the handle’s of the chair and I helped him off. The driver waited for me to get back on but I waved him off.
This was my first, and not my last, example of empathy. Empathy, I realized, is a feeling derived from our own experiences. Our own pain and our success! The things that make us smile and the things that make us cry. Empathy is an instinctual trait but it is also acquired through experience.
The Connection Between Mental Illness and Empathy
The connection between mental illness and empathy is not as complicated as the word itself. Why are people who live with a mental illness naturally more empathetic?
>Pain is shared experienced. There is not a single person on earth (excluding, perhaps, very young children) who have not felt pain. Just as people all need to drink water to survive so to do they need to feel pain at some point in order to be human. To be empathetic. Mental illness is painful and pain is transferable–aka we are empathetic to other people’s pain.
>Living with a mental illness can help us understand people on a deeper level. We have probably spent time learning about our illness–learning about ourselves. The journey we take to recover from mental illness is unique to us, but also lends itself to an understanding of other people.
>We are probably more forgiving. When we were sick we probably burnt some bridges, hurt people we love, and asked for forgiveness. Having received it, we understand mistakes and we can forgive them based on learned empathy.
It’s sort a complicated topic and distinctly hard to condense, but empathy is an important part of life. I won’t ever forget that man on the bus, how he shook my hand after and we exchanged names, both us people, both of us having learned a little more about empathy.