I love words. Writing words allows me to express myself like no other way does. Words swirl around in my brain, and eventually make it to my fingertips in the form of expression. However, words also have a certain limit to them. For example, take the term “Thank you.” Here are some situations where I might say “Thank you.”
*Someone holds the door for me*
*The woman fixing the vending machine gives me my snack for free*
*My friend lets me rant to her over chat on a night when I feel like I can’t take it anymore*
In each case, it was the same two words, yet the level of and reason for gratitude was completely different. Looking at only the response words, it is not clear that the three situations are even different at all. This is one example of how words can sometimes have limits that do not allow them to express a true feeling.
Here’s a slightly different example.
There is a myth that people with autism don’t feel empathy. This post from Seriously Not Boring is an example of one way that someone with autism feels and expresses empathy. It reminded me of an experience I had in second grade.
One of my classmates had a sore throat and trouble breathing, so she went to the office. She came back after a while with a glass of water, feeling better. During this. I had started crying and was on the verge of having a panic attack. My teacher sent me to the office, where one of the secretaries talked to me. She said something like, “I know. I know it’s hard. You feel so much empathy for everyone. You are so caring.” Her words meant a lot to me. I realized that I had been so overwhelmed by the feelings of my classmate that I hadn’t known how to deal with them or express the feelings in words.This is common for people with anxiety, so it is not surprising.
I was also reminded of this recently in a different way. I am currently volunteering at a summer camp, and there was a kid in one of the groups, let’s call him “Dylan.” He was maybe 5 or 6 years old or so, and was a little “different” from the rest of the kids. He had trouble expressing himself in words, and was having a hard time participating in the games. I don’t know if he was on the autism spectrum or just a bit “quirky,” he was having a hard time participating in the game we were playing. At one point, one of the other kids in the group began to cry. One of the counselors went over to comfort him. Dylan went to the edge of the boundaries for the game we were playing, and stared at the other kid, visibly distressed. “It’s okay Dylan, he’ll be okay. I know you don’t like it when people cry,” one of the other counselors said to him. I immediately thought of my experience in second grade. I knew what he was feeling. Overwhelmed by the emotions of his classmate. Unable to express the feeling in words.
Now, you’re probably wondering what all this had to do with the “Thank you” example above. Both cases are examples of the “correct” words not being appropriate or available in the situation. Yet, so much of life in our society revolves around the expression of words, that the situation with Dylan, or the one with me, could have easily been misinterpreted. Instead of acknowledging it as empathy, the adults in the situations could have very easily brushed us off as paranoid, busy bodies, or crybabies, all of which would have only made the situation worse. By understanding that we couldn’t express ourselves in words at that moment, the adults in each situation recognized that we were experiencing overwhelming empathy, not just being paranoid.
So, next time you see someone overwhelmed by their emotions, or hear someone else claim that they can’t feel empathy, remember that they may in fact be experiencing empathy so strong that they can’t express it in words. Instead of judging them, accept and recognize their unique way of expressing empathy when the feelings speak louder than the words. That is true compassion.
From the #1000 Speak For Compassion Website:
“Bloggers from all over the world are coming together to talk about compassion on the 20th of each month. The 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion movement was born when blogger and author Yvonne Spence organized over 1000 bloggers to post about compassion in one epic event on February 20, 2015. The response was so great that it was decided to continue the #1000Speak project on a monthly basis, with a different topic each month.”