I've grown fond of John, as has Red. Often, when I pull up at the Mansion, he is out for a walk, having his daily cigarette. He is a warm and generous man, he always shakes my hand, he seems especially helpful and attentive to the other residents. Sometimes, Red and I walk with John.
I first sat with him on a bitter cold February day out in front of the Mansion, we sat and watched the cars drive by. Mostly, we sat in silence, but talked when we felt like it. I know very little about him, I hope to learn more.
The Mansion has been a breakthrough experience for me, I've done hospice and therapy work for some years, but always moving from one institution to another. I let Red or another dog do the work, I kept my distance, I was just the man who brought the dog in.
I decided to change that, and stay with one place, get to know the residents, understand the people I was working with, not just leave it to the dog. He is the primary spark, but sometimes, I matter also, and I wasn't sure I knew that or perhaps, I was afraid to know it.
I can help also, the one limit of therapy dogs is that they can't really talk. Or truly listen.
This change has truly paid off. I am getting to know the residents and their needs, and I am getting to know the staff, a rich and gratifying experience for me, they are some of the most loving people I have know. To know the staff at the Mansion is to have faith in the goodness of people affirmed, again and again.
There are people who care about others, they really care. The staff demonstrates the great difference between empathy and sympathy (see Brene Brown on the subject). They practice empathy, not pity or sympathy, they do not patronize or diminish. I have learned a lot from watching them.
I believe in empathy, it has become part of my faith, I see it's disappearance in so much of the country, and especially among our political leaders.
Empathy requires that you step outside of your own emotions to view things from the perspective of the other person, as completely as you can. It asks us to identify with and understand the situation, feelings and motives of others.
It is sometimes easy to feel sympathy, empathy is more complex. The term was first used in Europe to denote the connection between an artists and someone who feels and loves their work, each steps into the shoes and soul of the other. It means something broader now.
Empathy is what I most often feel at the Mansion, as the residents open their hearts to me and help me to understand their feelings and emotions. In an odd way, they understand me more than many people who know me. They gift me the gift of practicing empathy. When that happens, we each become a part of the other, it is profoundly gratifying work. It stretches me as a human being and opens me to a new kind of spirituality.
It is, I suppose, a selfish gift to me, but one of the most important things for me to learn.
I celebrate empathy as the hallmark of a noble spirit, the mark of social justice, and a path to the highest human potential.
I thank John for walking with me.